Depression may look different in men

Depression affects millions of Americans, each of them in a different way. Though anyone with depression may have trouble recognizing the disease or asking for help, these steps can be especially difficult for men.

Compared with women, men are less likely to identify depression as a health problem. Men's symptoms also tend to differ from the sad, tearful symptoms often associated with the disease, says Thomas R. Insel, MD, past director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

Even if men recognize their symptoms, they're less likely to admit to depression, reports the NIMH. Many men are concerned that a diagnosis of mental illness will affect how family, friends and their community view them.

For all of these reasons and more, too many of the men in the United States who have depression aren't getting treated. Avoiding treatment can put a man through years of needless suffering. It can also endanger his life.

For the sake of quality and quantity of life, every man with signs of depression should talk to a doctor.

Different for him

The core feelings caused by depression tend to be hopelessness, helplessness and worthlessness, says Dr. Insel.

Instead of becoming sad, men may respond to these feelings by becoming irritable, angry or discouraged. They may complain of fatigue, loss of interest in hobbies or work, or changes in sleep patterns.

Depressed men often have the feeling that they're just dead inside, Dr. Insel says, and can't feel anything at all.

Men are also more likely than women to cope with depression by turning to alcohol or drugs, which can mask depressive symptoms. Other men bury themselves in work, start acting very recklessly or become abusive.

When it sets in

Depression is often triggered by loss, Dr. Insel says. Examples include loss or abuse in early childhood, losing a job, losing a loved one or losing self-esteem. Other possible triggers include a difficult relationship, financial problems, retirement, health problems or other stressful changes in life patterns.

A family or personal history of depression also puts a man at higher risk.

Full body illness

Regardless of what causes it, research shows that the effects of depression go far beyond feelings.

This disease affects many parts of the body, including brain structure or function, the cardiovascular system, and the immune system. It affects thoughts, appetite and sleep. It's linked to headaches, digestive problems and chronic pain. It can complicate or intensify chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.

Men are also at much higher risk for the worst possible outcome of depression—suicide, according to the NIMH.

Treatment can help

In almost all cases, living with depression is unnecessary. More than 80 percent of people who get treated for depression get better, according to the NIMH.

"This is a real illness with real treatments," says Dr. Insel. Medication, counseling or both can help.

Seeking treatment for depression is no different than seeking treatment for heart disease, diabetes, cancer or any other serious illness. In all cases, your health—and possibly your life—are on the line.

Getting help

If you have symptoms of depression that have lasted at least two weeks or are severe enough to interfere with day-to-day activities, it's time to see a doctor.

According to the NIMH, the symptoms of depression can include:

  • A sad, anxious or empty mood that doesn't go away.
  • Feeling hopeless, helpless, guilty or worthless.
  • Losing interest in activities that were once enjoyed.
  • Always feeling tired or slowed down.
  • Thoughts of death or suicide.

Some of these symptoms could be side effects from a medicine you're taking or signs of a viral infection, thyroid disorder or testosterone deficiency.

If it is depression, your doctor can offer you effective treatment options.

If you care about a man who seems depressed, talk to him about the disease and encourage him to see a doctor. If all else fails, make the appointment yourself and go with him. It could save his life.

reviewed 8/20/2018

Related stories