Big boys don’t cry

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The subject of this week’s article follows a couple of tragic incidents recently.

Now, I’m not sure, but I think there was once a pop song with the line “Big boys don’t cry” in it somewhere, but that is not important. What is important is that if you came from a western society, you were probably raised with that dictum. You probably even picked up your crying toddler son after a tumble and said, “There, there. Big boys don’t cry. You’re OK.” Correct?

We are all guilty of promoting this stereotype. The big strong man who protects the weak and vulnerable woman. Countless movies all follow this theme from “Gone with the Wind” through to “Mission Impossible III”, so it must be true. Unfortunately for all those big strong super-protective men out there, the stereotype is not necessarily true and rigid following of it can be quite contrary to good mental health.

“Men are far more reluctant to talk about their emotional vulnerabilities than women,” says Dr Nicole Highet, a psychologist. “This stigma may be due to the perception that emotional problems and depression are women’s problems.”

“Men tend to be action-oriented, so they mistrust feelings and tend to regard emotions as a sign of weakness,” says Dr Michael Dudley, a psychiatrist and chairman of Suicide Prevention Australia. “For men, mental illness is seen as a moral failing, so they bury pain and don’t talk to people about it. But depression is an illness, not a weakness.”

Depression is an illness that can strike at any time, even to those normally associated with dogged masculine determination. Famous amongst these was Sir Winston Churchill, who guided the UK through the tribulations of WWII, and who called his depression “the black dog”.

What has to be understood is that just “feeling down” on its own is not a symptom of mental illness. We all feel down from time to time, generally when something has happened to precipitate it, even the death of a family pet. “We all feel sad from time to time, but depression is an ongoing sadness that lasts for two weeks or more, with a complete loss of pleasure in things that were once enjoyed. Some men live with their condition for months, or even years, and become acclimatized to their low mood or negativity,” says Dr Highet. “But depression isn’t merely a passing blue mood or something that someone can ‘snap out of’ without help. Depression dramatically alters an individual’s body, mood and thoughts,” she says.

Since men have been raised not to have public displays of depression, many adopt strategies to cover the problem, with the common ways being to become workaholics, risk taking to produce ‘highs’, alcohol and illegal drugs.

“Men often try to manage their own symptoms,” says Dr Highet. “While this may provide temporary relief, it only compounds the illness as they are not addressing the underlying condition. There is also some debate as to whether the (drug) abuse masks the symptoms or actually causes the depression. Whichever way, getting help is essential.”

The incidence in the community is frightening. In Australia, which has a well developed reporting system, it is believed that clinical depression is Australia’s fastest growing illness. The National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing found that one in four women and one in six men suffered from depression. In 20 years it is predicted that depression will be second only to heart disease as Australia’s biggest health problem.

The enormity of the problem has remained hidden, but consider this: Depressed men are four times as likely as depressed women to commit suicide. Of the over 2,000 suicides in Australia each year, 80 percent are male. There are more men committing suicide each year than dying on the roads, and almost 50 percent of suicides are males aged 25 to 44.

While the causes of depression are multiple, and men try to mask their problem, the sad part is that depression can be treated. Modern pharmaceutical medication is not ‘mind altering’ but restores the chemical balance in the brain to allow ‘normal’ thought processes to return.

However, it needs the men to admit that they might, just might, have a problem!