“There are a lot of things that go on behind your eyes, in your head” – Five minutes into ITV’s recent Tonight programme about the stigma of male depression, came this poignant admission from rugby union player Duncan Bell, a figure who outwardly embodies the archetype of masculinity and physical strength. Bell had suffered depression throughout his sporting career but it was only recently that he felt able to open up and seek help.
He had, on two occasions while in his twenties, booked an appointment with his GP after depression started to affect his everyday life. But both times he cancelled at the last minute: ‘I told myself to man up…I’m a man. I’m a rugby player. I don’t need help’.
Herein lies one of the main challenges surrounding male depression. It is too often seen as a sign of weakness, an inherent character flaw that threatens the very notion of masculinity. Moreover, depression is seen as something that can be overcome without assistance: asking for help is perceived as an admission of defeat. This theme was present throughout the programme, in almost every man interviewed about their own depression.
Cultural forces are also at play, the British ‘stiff upper lip’ mentality that had its roots in the Victorian era, and was relied upon throughout the war and associated hardships of 20th Century life in Britain. There is evidence that this approach can sometimes be a useful coping mechanism for depression, but it is certainly not a solution. In addition to this are the often unhelpful clichés of ‘big boys don’t cry’ and ‘what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger’ which are etched onto the public consciousness and can be a big barrier to men seeking treatment for their mental conditions.
Men’s health Professor Alan White, interviewed in the programme, argued that men also tend to “self-medicate”, turning to drink or drugs, or trying to compensate for their low mood by working twice as hard. Rather than helping them, these approaches only make things worse. British men are also three times more likely than women to commit suicide, partly because of this unwillingness get professional help but also because men more often use violent and therefore ‘successful’ methods of suicide.
Unfortunately, the programme did not have time to properly touch on depression in older men, a growing problem which our report ‘Grouchy Old Men’ looks at in detail. As a result of an aging population, this is an issue that is starting to get more and more pressing – 25% of people over 65 have symptoms of depression that are severe enough to need treatment and 1,000 men over 50 commit suicide every year in England and Wales. Most older people are never even diagnosed.
At the end of the programme, the presenter asked Duncan Bell what he would say to people who still believe the ‘big boys don’t cry’ myth. Bell smiled: “Well they don’t get much bigger than me, and I do cry…as much as you don’t want to, sometimes it’s good to open up and get things off your chest”. Bell’s courage will hopefully encourage more men to do the same.
Read our ‘Grouchy Old Men’ report here.