During Men’s Health Week, a lot of attention is being paid to men’s fitness and their physical health. But consider this: Six million men are diagnosed with depression each year in America, and they account for 79 percent of suicides in the United States. These are shocking statistics. And author Graeme Cowan says they reveal the devastating consequences society’s views of masculinity have on men and their mental health.
“Boys grow up to be men with the understanding and expectation that they need to be tough, independent, and above all else, masculine,” says Graeme Cowan, author of Back from the Brink: True Stories and Practical Help for Overcoming Depression and Bipolar Disorder (New Harbinger Publications, Inc., 2014, ISBN: 978-1-608-82856-2, $16.95, www.IAmBackFromTheBrink.com). “Unfortunately, this focus on masculinity and the notion that men should just ‘man up’ when they feel anxious, depressed, sad, stressed, and so on, is very damaging. In fact, when you start to look at the statistics, it is sobering to reflect on the price men pay for a ‘stiff upper lip.’”
Graeme speaks from experience. In Back from the Brink, he tells the story of his multiple suicide attempts and five-year episode of severe depression. The book is filled with real stories of hope and healing, information about treatment options and medication, and tools for putting the book’s lessons into practice. With a foreword by Glenn Close, the book also features interviews with people from all walks of life, including former U.S. Representative Patrick Kennedy, Google’s Director of Public Policy Bob Boorstin, former NFL player Greg Montgomery, and more.
“During my depression, I completely lost hope that I could ever recover,” says Cowan. “And I struggled to ask for the help I needed. I was terrible at showing and sharing my emotions, and much of my inability to do so came from the fear that I would be looked at as weak if I didn’t just grin and bear the mental health problems I was having.”
Cowan notes that he was far from alone in his reluctance to seek care for his depression. Many men fail to take care of themselves. And that’s not just when it comes to their mental health. In fact, in an American Academy of Family Physicians survey conducted by Harris Interactive, 58 percent of men said they were reluctant to see a doctor.
Why is this so? One of the most credited theories is that men have been socialized to be self-sufficient. Many men believe that complaining of feeling ill or visiting the doctor is a threat to their masculinity or a waste of time. And they find it especially difficult to ask for help when it comes to taking care of their mental health.
So, what’s the solution? Cowan says it’s a strong support system.
“Nearly 80 percent of men say their spouse/significant other influences their decision to go to the doctor,” says Cowan. “And since writing Back from the Brink and speaking about how people can build their resilience and mental health, one of the most common questions I get asked is ‘How can I get my husband/boyfriend/son to seek help when they deny they need it?’ My loved ones, especially my parents, played a key role in my recovery, so I know how important a strong support system can be in someone’s recovery from depression.”
Here, Cowan provides tips on how you can encourage the men in your life to seek mental health care:
Break the ice. Be careful about how you approach this (very) touchy subject. It’s better to ease into the conversation, making it feel like a natural transition.
“In my own depression, I experienced black thoughts, pitiful energy levels, and a complete loss of confidence,” says Cowan. “My mind couldn’t grasp information, and I feared my intelligence was lost forever. If you suspect your loved one is suffering from depression, he’s very likely suffering similar symptoms that will make it difficult for him to articulate the way he feels. Breaking the ice and starting this important conversation is a great way to lend him the helping hand that could pull him out of his darkness.
“Ease into the conversation,” he adds. “Discuss the weather, sports, family, etc. in a private place—walking outside is ideal. Make an observation about a change in behavior you have observed. For example, you could say, ‘I’m concerned about you waking up at 4 a.m. and not being able to get back to sleep.’ Let him know you’re genuinely worried about him and want to do whatever you can to help. And reaffirm that it’s okay for him to need help.”
Listen without judgment. It’s hard enough for men to talk about their problems and emotions without feeling the weight of judgment.
“Seek to understand the full issue,” advises Cowan. “And be specific. You might ask, ‘What are the things that are causing you to lose sleep?’ ‘Why does that worry you so much?’ ‘What do you think can be done about it?’ ‘Have you considered asking someone else for help/advice?’ If he is struggling to come up with answers, then this might be the time to suggest strategies or someone else he could talk to. If he is able to provide answers, be careful how you respond. Never try to minimize what he’s feeling.”
Be sensitive. Accept that for many men it is very hard to talk about emotions and feelings of doubt and inadequacy. It is best to talk about behavior rather than threaten his self-esteem.
“I remember my wife being totally perplexed and wondering why I had not discussed my absolute despair with her prior to making an attempt on my life,” Cowan recalls. “She had no idea how low I felt, because I kept it from her. I didn’t ask for help out of shame, fear, and feelings of hopelessness.”
Try multiple choice. Most people like choices, and when it comes to labelling an emotion, it’s no different. Men may be more likely to discuss their thoughts and feelings if they don’t have to describe it.
“People who are depressed yearn for a sustained improvement in mood,” notes Cowan. “Every time I visited my psychiatrist, he inevitably asked me to rate my mood from 0 to 10, which actually led me to create my own moodometer. I found giving these ratings to be a very valuable resource for tracking my moods and progress. If a man has difficulty discussing feelings, he may respond better to giving this type of rating or even multiple choice. For example, ‘Are you feeling worried, sad, or angry right now?’”
Give hope. Emotional support and reassurance is the only way to approach such a delicate situation.
“You can make the male ego work in your favor here by reminding him of past successes,” Cowan comments. “You could say, ‘Remember how well you handled X? We couldn’t have gotten through that without you.’ Or, ‘You are such an important part of our family. Without you, we wouldn’t be the same.’ You might also share stories of people who’ve also struggled with depression. When I was chronically depressed, I yearned for stories of people who had been through something similar and had come out on the other side. I longed for a glimpse of optimism that could come only from fellow travelers—people who had been where I was.”
Encourage action (but don’t overdo it). Many depressed people are so hopeless that they feel there isn’t a single thing out there that can help them feel better. Their depression has so skewed their outlook that they simply think there is nowhere to turn.
“In my research talking with people who’ve suffered from depression, I’ve found that their greatest regret is not seeking expert help or diagnosis earlier,” says Cowan. “This is where loved ones can play a vital role. Offer to make an appointment for them (and accompany them if they are willing). If they strongly resist going to the doctor, you could suggest they do an anonymous online depression test. For further guidance, you can visit www.ruokday.com, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org), the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (www.dbsalliance.org), Families for Depression Awareness (www.familyaware.org), and many other online resources. Remember that nothing will happen until someone makes a move.”
Follow up. Check in a few days later to see if he has scheduled an appointment. If he hasn’t, mention the idea again and gently remind him how important it is to take care of himself. If he has gone to the doctor for a check-up, encourage him to go ahead and schedule his next appointment so you can have it on the calendar.
“In the course of making hundreds of presentations on depression, I’ve found that an incredibly important way to assist and influence those who are suffering is to build knowledge of what they’re going through,” says Cowan. “Celebrate this Men’s Health Week by checking in with the men in your life—husband, boyfriend, son, it doesn’t matter—just ask them how they’re doing and feeling. It could be the most important conversation you ever have with them.”
About the Author
Graeme Cowan is the author of Back from the Brink: True Stories and Practical Help for Overcoming Depression and Bipolar Disorder (New Harbinger Publications, Inc., 2014, ISBN: 978-1-608-82856-2, $16.95, www.IAmBackFromTheBrink.com). He is also a speaker who helps people build their resilience, well-being, and performance. Despite spending most of his career as a senior executive in Sydney, Australia, with organizations like Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, and A.T. Kearney, Graeme had struggled with depression for more than 20 years. Graeme reemerged with not just a best-selling Australian book series to his name but a new attitude toward the way individuals approach recovery.