More men than ever are using antidepressants.
A recent report issued by the CDC reviewed antidepressant use among Americans between 2011 and 2014 and found that nearly 9 percent of men said they took antidepressant medication in the past month – almost double the amount that was reported in 1999 and 2002.
It’s important to note, the report doesn’t specify the reasons men are taking medication. While antidepressants are generally prescribed to treat depression, they’re also used to combat other disorders, including anxiety.
More than 6 million American men suffer from depression. While the CDC’s report indicates an uptick in men seeking help, there’s still concern among the psychology community that men either don’t recognize depression symptoms, hide it altogether and/or have difficulty expressing their emotions.
Depression in Men
Depression can manifest itself in various ways, although there tends to be common symptoms including feelings of hopelessness, lack of energy and extreme sadness.
But men don’t always display “typical” symptoms, making it hard to identify depression. In addition to a prolonged negative mood and isolation, the American Psychological Association says “male-based depression” can take on these forms:
- Inappropriate anger
- Substance abuse
- Reckless behavior
- Loss of interest in work or hobbies
Paul*, a Washington-based editor, has battled depression for most of his life, with episodes lasting anywhere from a week to several months. During those periods, he recalls isolating himself and putting important aspects of his life in jeopardy.
“I lose my will to be sociable, to do my hobbies or to exercise,” Paul told Depression Defined. “In one particularly bad bout when I was 23, I quit my job and went into a fugue state for several days, and I have no memory of that time whatsoever. When I was a young child all the way into my twenties, I also tended to intentionally sabotage my personal and work relationships by saying things that I knew would push people away, but with age I seem to have learned to resist those impulses.”
And like many people who suffer from depression, Paul said it took him years – and thoughts of suicide – to recognize he was dealing with a serious condition.
One Man’s Antidepressant Experience
According to the CDC report, many men suffer from depression over an extended period. More than 21 percent reported taking antidepressants for a decade or longer.
Paul’s relationship with antidepressants began in 1997, when he was suicidal and desperate for relief. For the next 17 years he tried various medications – starting with Prozac and ending with Effexor – and says the experience was both complicated and life-saving.
“I remember being surprised by Prozac’s effects: I literally had the impression that Prozac was a ‘happy pill,’ so I was a little disappointed when it didn’t actually make me feel happy as I’d expected, but rather less sad,” he said. “I was pleased that it made my mood more buoyant, which gave me just the little help I needed to ride out that particular wave of depression. After that episode passed, I started talk therapy.”
In 2008, Paul was still living through depressive cycles, and while the bouts were less severe than in his younger years, he said he was still battling suicidal thoughts.
“I made a conscious decision to move away from therapy where the focus was trying to figure out the root causes of my depression, and toward mindfulness therapy that focused on real-world solutions to my symptoms,” Paul said. “[That] has been a game-changer for me.”
He may have been on to something. According to a study conducted at Northwestern University in 2015, overall recovery rates are substantially higher when patients combine antidepressants with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT focuses on practical solutions and changing negative thoughts or behaviors.
While Paul is no longer on antidepressants, he credits them for saving his life.
“I am happier now than I ever imagined I could be,” he said. “I no longer need medication. But the irony is that the reason I no longer need medication is because I used to take it, and it kept me alive so that I could live long enough to make the major self-esteem and lifestyle breakthroughs that have allowed me to be happy most of the time now. I haven’t cured my depression — I don’t believe that’s even possible in my case — but I’ve learned how to make changes in my life so that my depression doesn’t get triggered as easily as it used to.”
From One Guy to Another: How to Cope
Paul offered these tips to other men living with depression:
Accept Depression as a Medical Condition
“You’re not depressed because you’re weak, or because you’re not trying hard enough to be happy. Don’t let anyone tell you that curing depression is as simple as choosing to be happy: You’ll hear this a lot because our culture loves to shame people for not being happy.”
“The first medication you try might not work. People’s brains work differently, and different medications do different things in the brain, so anticipate that you might need to try several medications before you find the best fit.”
“The first really good therapist I ever had earned a Master’s in Social Work rather than a psychology degree, and the worst therapist I saw had a PhD from an Ivy League university. So I recommend not assuming that just because the therapist has a very exceptional resume that she or he is necessarily an exceptional therapist — it doesn’t really work that way.”
(And, he said, to get the most out of your sessions it’s important to be honest and don’t tell them what you think they want to hear.)
More Tips for Dealing with Male-based Depression
As you navigate how to cope with depression, give yourself a break. Do smaller, manageable tasks first. Accomplishing a few things, no matter how small, can boost your mood.
Be sure to spend time with others. Don’t isolate yourself. This is when negative thoughts hatch and perpetuate depression.
If you’re feeling suicidal, speak up immediately. Call your doctor, tell your family or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-8255) – just don’t stay silent. There’s help available and people who understand how you feel.
Know a Man With Depression? How You Can Help
Irrational anger is one tip-off that something more may be going on, but it’s also common for men to partake in reckless behavior, like heavy drinking, to numb the pain (of course, women can fall into this trap, too). If you suspect depression is the culprit, how can you help your son, brother, husband, boyfriend or friend?
- Provide gentle support by listening and being patient
- Make sure he’s seeing his doctors
- Suggest easy activities that get him out of the house
- Ensure he’s taking his medications
*Paul preferred to keep his last name private.