Depressed Men? "Yes, Virginia there really is a Santa Clause (and depressed men)." And truthfully, there are a lot more of them than most people think. They can just be a little hard to spot.
With the suicide of actor-comedian Robin Williams last week, we all got to see what depression in men can lead to. But as a therapist who treats and writes about depressed men, the subject and outcome is nothing new.
Men hide from depression. And a lot of them do it really well. We still live in a ‘John Wayne,’ “getter done” culture that makes linking depression and men like a four-letter word for most men. I call it the ‘weakness factor’ and just wrote about it two weeks ago on PsychCentral. Here's an excerpt:
I’ve found that it’s much easier for women to say, “I’m depressed,” than it is for men. This has more to do with what I call the “weakness factor,” in which men struggle to admit something’s wrong with them or acknowledge something they perceive as a sign of weakness." -Dr. Kurt
Truthfully, Robin Williams is not unique. He certainly was special as a comedian and actor, but his psychological problems weren't at all. Men – successful men, struggling men, rich men, poor men, young men, old men, men of every ethnicity, all men -- can struggle with sadness and how they feel about themselves. And, yes, struggle to the point of killing themselves to make their mental pain stop.
Are there signs when men are depressed? Yes. Here are a few signs of depression friends saw in Robin Williams:
- He started to disconnect," comedian Rick Overton, a friend of Williams' since the 1970s, said Tuesday. "He wasn't returning calls as much. He would send texts and things like that, but they would get shorter and shorter."
- "You could just tell something was off," Pearl said. "He seemed detached. It's hard to explain. He didn't seem like his usual self. My fiancee and I were like, 'Is he OK?' I didn't know it would get this dark."
- “He got real quiet.”
What leads to depression in men? Dissatisfaction with one's life, defining what others see as success as failure in your own eyes, not seeing yourself in the positive ways others see you, having a poor self-image, feeling out of control. See if you can see these in this quote from Williams:
“It’s trying to fill the hole, and it’s fear,” he told Maron of what led him back to drinking. “You’re going, ‘What am I doing in my career?’ You bottom out…. People say, ‘You have an Academy Award.’ The Academy Award lasted about a week, and then one week later people are going, ‘Hey, Mork!'" -Robin Williams
This statement by Robin Williams is very revealing. He says he had a hole he was trying to fill. We all have them. It's just that for some of us our holes are much bigger and we try to fill them with things that don't work -- alcohol, success, money. Look at his questioning of himself. While people pointed out his success in winning an academy award for best supporting actor (an accomplishment that only 68 other men have ever done), he only heard what to him must have been ridicule in people remembering him for his famous TV-role as "Mork from Ork."
Are there triggers for men to get depressed?
- Williams no longer pulled in the big paydays he had in his earlier career and, with tens of millions of dollars in divorce settlements from his first two marriages to contend with, he found himself facing growing money problems.
- “Divorce is expensive.... It's ripping your heart out through your wallet," Williams said.
- In addition to previous problems with mental illness, Williams was also in a demographic that is particularly vulnerable to suicide . . . White, middle-aged men with medical problems are at the highest risk for suicide, he said. It's not entirely clear why that is, but Dost Ongur, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and chief of the psychotic disorders division at McLean Hospital outside of Boston, said "this idea of control and virility and being able to deal with the world in a certain way – as that starts to slip away, there's often a sense of loss of control and threat to one's manhood, and that seems to be associated with higher rates of suicide."
Financial problems are a very common trigger for men to get depressed. Obviously money is an important part of all of our lives, but in this culture we associate our identity and define our self-worth so much based on what we do and have done (and often only on what we've done lately as in Williams' case).
What can we do for a depressed man? Know the signs for depression in men and watch for them. When we see them, suggest to him that getting counseling help would be a good idea. This can be a tough sell to men, so being persistent is important. Ultimately, and sadly, we have to recognize that we can't control what the person does or doesn't do -- if they'll admit, "I'm depressed," if they'll get help, or if they'll change the way they think and live.
And that's really the end of Robin Williams' story. It was his life and he chose how he lived it. For him, he chose to escape the pain of this world, but for everyone else, the pain has just begun. Hopefully, his life will challenge other depressed men to choose a different path.
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