Stop “Dumbing Down” Male Depression – It’s Complex and Needs a Re-Think

The 1990’s have been referred to as “the decade of the antidepressant.” Pharmaceutical companies went into overdrive advertising them and many of us jumped naively on the bandwagon thinking we’d found a quick fix. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the miracle pill we all thought it was. We’ve realised since then, thank goodness, that depression is a complex illness and there ain’t no miracle cure.

In terms of men and depression, I want to challenge you to begin by thinking about context so that we can get a clearer idea of why men get depressed, because we know now that for the vast majority of people with a mild to moderate depressive disorder, there’s actually nothing wrong with their brain, there’s no “chemical imbalance” to explain why they feel depressed.

So today I want to look at three problems that I believe are significant contributors to depression in men.

1. Masculinity Needs to be Redefined

The first problem I can see with men and depression is that our model of masculinity is bloody ridiculous. We’re raised with messages such as, “big boys don’t cry,” you need to “be a man,” or “grow a pair.”   Check out the trailer to this documentary due to be released soon. How do we help a young man who is depressed if the prevailing message he receives is this?

And the message leads to dire consequences. We’re told to “take a teaspoon of cement and harden the f—k up.”  Is it any wonder that 1 in 5 deaths of men aged 18-44 in this country is due to suicide? Check out this excellent clip that challenges assumptions about suicide:

Retired American NFL Player Joe Ehrmann talks about the three things that define a “real” man:

  1. Sport
  2. Sex
  3. Success

He talks about how dangerous this is. Now, he’s not suggesting, and neither am I, that we need to “feminise” men. We’re just saying that the current model doesn’t work. Don’t believe me? Then look at rates of domestic violence, crime, substance use, suicide, failed marriages, physical health problems, mental health problems and anger issues in men and you can see there is something very wrong here.

“Most men today live behind masks. They put them on in the morning and keep them on until they fall asleep at night, adopting the clichés of what they perceive a real man to be. The problem is, it’s all pretend.”  Steve Biddulph

2. A Poorly Understood Condition

The second problem I can see is that many men suffer from a little understood disorder known as:


A = without

Lexi = Words

Thymia = Emotions

A lot of blokes have trouble articulating their emotions. How do we deal with this? How do we create an environment in which it easier for men to communicate?

Well first of all, don’t sit opposite him in a “formal” setting (this includes coffee shops and lounge rooms) and ask him a range of confronting and difficult questions. Be creative in how you talk: go for a walk, go fishing, grab a beer, and be aware of the language you use. There’s a knack to getting a bloke to talk, and if you’re a bloke reading this, one of the best things you can do is be honest yourself, take the lead and show your mate that it’s okay to talk about emotions.

Why is it important to talk? Because you can teach an old dog new tricks. With some time and patience, we can “re-learn” what it means to be masculine and that it is okay to show emotion.

It is not only okay, there is actually science behind why talking is good. Look at these images:

brain-depressionThe scans on the left are of a man who walked in to an ED in France in 2007 (Yes, it’s not a typo, he WALKED in) complaining of some mild left-sided weakness. You can read more about him here.  Basically, as fluid accumulated on his brain over a period of 30 years, his brain “adapted” and made new pathways around the areas that were being damaged. It’s called, “neuroplasticity.” And what’s amazing about this is that it happens right throughout your life. And even more amazing, changes happen in your brain even as you are thinking and talking about stuff.

“Neural imaging scans show how brain blood flow shifts and new firing patterns emerge when, for example, a client is given specific instructions to think about or asked to write down his or her thoughts and consider solutions to their worries.” (Rossouw, 2013).

So, if we can get blokes talking about why they’re depressed, changes will start happening straight away in their brains that will be helping them actually get better.

3. We need a sense of Adventure

The third problem I can see is that we seem to have lost our sense of adventure in life. For many men, life is just boring. And I think that most men, if not all, on some level, want a challenge, they want a life of adventure and meaning and purpose but we’ve been confined to offices that are clinical and dull; we tie a noose around our neck every day and off to work we go.

“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)


“There is no easy formula for determining right and wrong livelihood, but it is essential to keep the question alive. To return the sense of dignity and honour to manhood, we have to stop pretending that we can make a living at something that is trivial or destructive and still have sense of legitimate self-worth. A society in which vocation and job are separated for most people gradually creates an economy that is often devoid of spirit, one that frequently fills our pocketbooks at the cost of emptying our souls.”  Sam Keen, ”Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man.”

Have a look at this thought provoking clip that challenges the advanced and modern world that we live:

Where to from here?

I work in Mental Health and my job involves assessing people who are in crisis. It’s too easy to skip through the paperwork and tick all the boxes and simply manage risk. It saddens me that a formal assessment doesn’t call for the clinician to ask the man about issues such as:

  • what they think their purpose in life is
  • if they find a sense of adventure in life
  • whether they feel like they’re making a difference
  • how they feel about themselves as a son, brother, husband, father or all of those.

We really have to up our game and do a better job at helping men!

If you want to start by doing some reading, I’d suggest these books:

The New Manhood: Steve Biddulph
The Secret Life of Men – Steve Biddulph
Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man by Sam Keen

All three of these books are available in our bookstore.

If you’d prefer a multimedia approach, I highly recommend the Australian Movie, “Men’s Group.” It’s a confronting and emotionally raw drama that will move you, I guarantee it. You can check out a trailer here:

I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

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