Men and depression
By Rachel O'Rourke
When I got the news that a college friend had committed suicide, it was like entering a dark room with no way of finding the light-switch.
It’s a feeling that many describe when something dramatically unforeseeable occurs, that spins life into a different direction; a feeling that can never properly be put into words.
It’s called shock. And yet there are no feelings of shock at all. Numbness is all that is there.
It is as though the world has accepted the truth and is carrying along as normal, but the brain refuses to comprehend reality.
Jo* was one of the most lovable people I had ever met. The first thing anyone would say about him, and the first term people used to describe him at his funeral, was that ‘he was always smiling’. ‘Happy-go-lucky’. ‘Everyone’s friend’. ‘A real ray of sunshine’. Yet under the smile and the gags, Jo had been suffering in silence for several years.
Although at the time of his suicide, no one knew whether he had been formally diagnosed with a mental illness, people knew he had sought therapy previously for depression.
Cries for help, ignored
His suicide seemed so confusing to many. Here was a guy who never stopped smiling; who was gregarious and who loved being around people; who lived to enjoy the weekend, and his friends. But the severity of the deep inner sadness he harboured had gone un-noticed and ignored.
Looking back now, people say his depression was obvious. After all, he had spoken of committing suicide before and even updated his Facebook status a week prior saying he did not think he would live to see the weekend through.
Why didn’t anyone react?
“No one thought he was serious,” says one friend who wishes to remain anonymous. “He was always a bit of a character and was always p*ssing around, saying things he didn’t mean. I thought it was just his way of saying that he was having a rubbish day at work,” she said.
For the purposes of this feature, I asked Jo’s male friends to help me understand more about his mental wellbeing before he died. I wanted to know what advice they would offer to other men suffering with depression, who might feel they had no one to talk to.
Surprisingly, each denied that Jo was suffering from depression, and each refused to contribute to a feature after learning it was related to mental illness.
It raised a serious question in my mind: Why were these men ashamed to talk about the subject?
“Many people are afraid to admit to having or of talking about mental health problems, because of shame,” says Doctor Sheri Jacobson, a director and therapist at Harley Therapy London, a one-stop-shop for everything related to mental health.
“The ironic thing is, sad cases like this can be a good opportunity to open-up the discussion of it again, which can help educate and help others. Right now, it is a silent killer.”
According to mental health charity Mind, who published the first ever set of guidelines addressing the mental health needs of men and boys in January 2011, men ‘self-stigmatise’ and many are embarrassed to admit to themselves or others that they have a mental health problem.
The guidelines also stipulate that men often do not display the traditional symptoms of depression, more often associated with women, such as sleepless nights, crying and feeling low. Instead, they are more likely to ‘act out’, through taking drugs, drinking excessively or behaving aggressively. This means their problems can be overlooked or misdiagnosed.
“With mental illness, you don’t have bruises on your body to show others,” says Sheri, “but inside the pain can be tremendous.
“Many people, particularly younger men, end up suffering in silence until something drastic happens, because the stigma attached to mental illness stops them seeking help.”
Sheri explains that in men particularly – often because they feel it is expected of them to hold their emotions, behave in a way that is perceived as strong and free from weakness – view having a mental illness as a failure.
“Men do not know that the problems they face are common, and will often say they need to ‘pull themselves together’, which of course, doesn’t help.
“Today, however, there are a significant number of men seeking help. It may be surprising, but there are more men than there are women on our client book.”
A large amount of men will still worry about the confidentiality of seeking help through a therapist, says Sheri, worried that it could be leaked to their family or employer. And while it appears the number of men seeking private therapy is high, the NHS still report a much higher percentage of women seek help than men.
“In my opinion, it is nothing to be ashamed about. More publicity for mental health is needed in order to normalise the subject. People need to learn that it is okay to have a mental health issue.”
Making mental health the norm
And more publicity for mental health is certainly taking place. This month Channel 4 announced its bold season of prime-time programming, aimed at challenging mental illness stigma and discrimination, titled ‘Channel 4 Goes Mad’ – a series that Mental Healthy’s Charlotte Fantelli also appeared on.
In one episode, MP Kevan Jones spoke openly about his Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, demonstrating that anyone can suffer from mental illness.
BBC 1’s Eastenders recently also followed the story of Ian Beale’s mental breakdown, furthering discussion for mental illness in the public domain.
It is little shifts like these that can make a big long-term difference, and as long as high-profile people continue to speak-out on a subject that’s often treated as taboo, a generation’s negative perception of mental illness will change.
It is my opinion that experiences such as Jo’s, heart-breaking as they are, must be used towards something positive. An attempt at educating others that mental illness can happen to anyone – male or female – so as to reduce tragedies like these happening again is therefore my tribute to this great person, who will never be forgotten.
Rest in peace Jo x
*Name changed to protect family identity.