Depression and Masculinity: Finding the Men in Mental Health

When Men’s Depression asked me to write a guest post, I panicked. I’m supposed to be anonymous. It’s one of the principal aims of #BlackDogRunner. To be an ‘unknown soldier’, who anyone could know. Your friend, your workmate, your sister. I can’t be a very convincing sister if I’m getting invites to write for men’s health websites.

Which got me thinking, what have I done to suggest manliness? I don’t remember making any misogynistic remarks. Nor, for that matter, any casually sexist ones. I certainly don’t remember sharing any risqué pics of my doggy parts. I suppose I did once make a joke about peeing on lampposts & licking my balls. But that was clearly a generic dog joke…

BlackDoggessRunner
I could be your sister, right?

So I asked my Twitter friends:

The feedback was clear:

Was it my choice of avatar? Or my website’s empty and colourless theme? Should I have added a few black flowers to confuse the stereotypers? Perhaps there is just something about my writing style. An imperceptible but unmistakeable sign of Man. Like the smell of man sweat. Except that’s sadly not quite so imperceptible. *sprays deodorant*

Gender stereotyping is usually something I try to avoid. Like public transport on a match day. The truth being that even the most archetypal differences between men and women aren’t always true. Like… Erm… ‘down there’. Yes, most of the time men have pointy bits and women have inny bits… but not always. And genetics are no more reliable; there are women with Y chromosomes, and men with more than one X.

So, never assume. Everyone is individual and should be treated as such. Especially when it comes to mental health, where one-size-fits-all often ends up fitting no one.

I wonder what we could achieve if we stopped judging people by their sex? Or their mental health for that matter? Image by Dan Piraro of Bizarro

But… And this is where it gets tricky… Just because we’re all unique, doesn’t mean there aren’t trends. Behaviours that are more common in women, or characteristics that that are more common in men. Think of a room of people. The tallest might be a woman and the shortest might be a man. But on average, the combined height of the men will (usually) be more than of the women.

It’s like this with mental health. Women are more likely to experience what are called ‘internalised’ – or self-directed – problems, like eating disorders, and men are more likely to experience ‘externalised’ problems – ie that spill into the outside world – like drug addiction or violence. This doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of women with drug addictions or plenty of men with eating disorders. It’s just a trend.

Classed as a so-called internalised condition, depression is generally more common in women. In fact, one in four women will experience clinical depression at some point in their lives, compared with ‘just’ one in ten men. I say ‘just’ with more than a bit of tongue in cheek, because that’s still an awful lot of men. For those watching the World Cup in Brazil, it’s around two-to-three players on the field at any one time (though actually, it’ll be more, because depression is especially common among professional football players). For the American’s (who I’m told are not quite so enamoured with ‘Soccer’), that’s the same number of men worldwide as the entire population of the USA.

But it’s not just about living with depression. Although depression is less common in men, suicides are much more common. These aren’t deaths by misadventure; a side effect of living life in fast lane. These are people who are ending their lives because they can’t see, bear, or cope with any other alternative.

All suicides are tragedies. But there’s one aspect of these excess male cases that I find especially tragic. For some men, the act of admitting they’re struggling with their mental health is more unbearable than taking their own life. It’s complicated, of course. Some men may not have the emotional literacy to fully understand, never mind communicate, their feelings; it’s simply not a part of our education. But the reasons go much deeper. In his traditional role, a man is encouraged to be powerful, independent, successful, in control, and never vulnerable. Blah blah blah blah blah. And while we’re at it women should all be thin and beautiful. But while I may not agree with these Palaeolithic gender roles, the fact remains that men remain under huge social pressure to hide any sign of vulnerability, especially emotional. It’s a toxic remnant of the culture of stiff upper lip. Epitomised 100 years ago when Europe marched half its men to their death in the name of those masculine traits of honour and bravery.

Where would we be without Disney and their Palaeolithic gender roles? Image from PsychologyToday.com

Major depression threatens every aspect of this traditional male role. Rather than seek help, it’s no surprise that so many men thus externalise their struggles through drink and violence.

This has to stop.

No more shame. No more embarrassment. To be a man, is to be a human. And we humans don’t choose our feelings any more than we choose our height.

For this reason, I recently decided to stand up and admit, yes, #BlackDogRunner is a man. A man who has feelings, is vulnerable, and sometimes cries. Particularly in public, and especially when it’s awkward.

Does this make me any less male? I still have all the archetypal features of a man. A Y chromosome, a penis, an obsession with the length of my penis. I even have facial hair and an arrogant sense of entitlement. But am I somehow less masculine? In terms of independence and vulnerability, maybe? But in terms of power, success, and self control? I’d argue the opposite. To accept and admit our flaws, I think, is to show far more mastery over them than to escape into denial.

By relentlessly boring people about my depression, I’m hoping I’ll encourage other men to feel less ashamed to speak out when they’re in a similar position. I realise this is somewhat optimistic. Verging on delusional. I’m just one dog, after all. But I’m not alone. US-based Men’s Depression – provides an excellent platform for men to blog about their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. In the UK, the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) runs a helpline and forum to encourage men to talk without judgement. There are even other dogs. Meet the #WolfPack from Time for Change. I’m not sure I’m entirely keen on the blokey stereotypes, but the premise is entirely accurate. We’re not dogs. So let’s stop barking and get talking!