My last piece detailed how signs of depression may differ in men, making depression harder to identify. It discussed how typical “boys will be boys” things like drinking, unsafe sex and risky behavior may be manifestations of an underlying depression. This piece will focus more on my experiences talking to depressed men and on potential ways to help someone in need.
The most important thing to do is identify someone with a problem. This is easier said than done, particularly in a place like Stanford where people are adept at hiding their problems. I hope my last piece is helpful in this regard.
It is equally important, however, to be attuned to a person’s behavior. The difference between a lot of drinking and unsafe drinking is blurry, especially since everyone handles their alcohol in a different way. Likewise, introversion versus extroversion is an experience different for every person. If your guy friend who used to party with you every weekend suddenly wants to stay inside, that is a potential problem. Likewise, if a more conservative drinker suddenly starts raging, it is time to talk. There is nothing wrong with behavioral changes for the better, but when someone changes in an unhealthy way you need to step in and provide support. Identification of a problem is the sine qua non of mental health.
Let’s say you think your friend is having a problem; now what? Well, ignoring the problem is not healthy for anyone. It is important to articulate your concern in a private conversation. Most guys walk through life thinking they do not have any problems, so being confronted by a friend will be tough. They might get defensive or clam up; very few sober guys will be effusive with their emotions.
Therefore, it’s important that you plan for these sorts of things by rehearsing with yourself or another friend. I find it important to remember that my job is to try to help people but that ultimately I can’t force someone to seek help. So make yourself available and listen attentively to whatever he has to say. There’s no need to invalidate emotions or guilt him (at this point) into seeking more professional help. Just listen and ask the occasional facilitating question. There’s no need to ask why he feels a certain way or why he’s behaving like that. Just listen.
Ultimately, you’ll want your friend to seek more professional help. Guys who buy heavily into masculine culture won’t be happy to. Typically, using “I” language and expressing your honest concern, while providing resources, is the best you can do: “I feel like you’ve been really withdrawn lately, which concerns me because you’re usually so upbeat. If you’re not feeling well, I’d like to help. I would appreciate it if you reached out to CAPS or the Bridge to talk to someone.” If he takes your advice, then great; if not, that’s fine too. At least someone tried to help. I firmly believe it is a friend’s job to express concern and help and that otherwise it’s not a friendship.
People will immediately point out that this is the way to approach anyone you think has a problem, not just guys. This is true to an extent, however there are some intangible things you need to understand about male culture before you can help a guy. For certain guys, masculinity is everything. It’s part of our daily lives, our conversations, our compliments and our insults. A lot of men gauge their self-worth based on perceived masculinity. And a part of the masculine perception is durability and self-reliance.
What I mean by those two things is the idea that a “manly man” shouldn’t have problems and that if he does, he should be able to solve them on his own. Debating the merits or failings of traditional masculinity is a subject for a different column; nonetheless, it’s important to understand that culture if you’re not a part of it. Suffice it to say, a lot of guys will be disinclined to seek help as a result of these cultural assumptions. This disinclination needs to be understood and planned for.
I hope this piece and its predecessor have been helpful in addressing depression in male culture. I’ve found many people unable to comprehend, or unwilling to confront, the effects of conventional masculinity. However, it’s important to “meet people where they’re at,” especially when dealing with sensitive subjects like mental health. I hope these columns can help you identify, talk to and empathize with friends in need.
Contact Chris with your ideas and concerns about mental health at firstname.lastname@example.org.