As “Movember,” the month set aside to raise awareness of men’s health issues by growing a moustache if you’re male (and tolerating one in your partner if you’re not) draws to a close, I wanted to ask that you pause for a moment before picking up your razor for that much-needed December 1st shave and check in with yourself, your partner and your friends about men’s mental health.
Increasing people’s understanding of mental health and suicide prevention for men is one of the three key health initiatives of the Movember Foundation (the other two are prostate and testicular cancer), a nonprofit first started in 2003 by a group of men in Australia who were inspired by the work they saw women doing to increase public awareness and prevention of diseases like breast cancer. Adam Garone, one of the movement’s founders, said that he and his friends realized “There’s nothing [like that] for men’s health.” Since that time, millions of November moustaches have been grown (including by celebs like David Beckham and Tom Hanks) to spark conversations about men’s health, and the Movember Foundation has raised over $500 million worldwide to fund programs targeted at health issues specific to men.
Mental health issues like depression affect both men and women – but they affect men differently, in ways that aren’t well understood – and that’s why having “Movember” conversations about them is crucial. Roughly six million men in the U.S. suffer from depression each year, and a staggering 30.6 percent (almost a third!) of men will experience a period of depression during their lifetimes. The rate of suicide among men in the U.S. is four times higher than among women.
Here are some of the ways in which depression can look different in men – and some of the things you as a man (or someone who loves one) can do about it.
1. While women tend to experience the negative thoughts and emotions tied to depression as feelings of sadness and worthlessness, men are more likely to experience them in the form of increased irritability, frustration, anger and stress.
2. Men tend not to talk about their negative feelings. Withdrawal from friends and family (just when their help is most needed) is listed as a symptom on WebMD. Men are much less likely to seek help for depression than women (only one in four depressed men speak to a mental health professional).
3. Men tend to experience or to focus on the physical symptoms of depression more than the emotional symptoms: extreme fatigue; insomnia; feeling exhausted even when sleeping an excessive number of hours; digestive complaints like diarrhea or constipation; back pain; and erectile dysfunction can all be symptoms of depression (though they may also have other causes).
Additional symptoms that are true for both genders are the loss of enthusiasm for or interest in activities that usually give pleasure; apathy; feelings of hopelessness; and changes in appetite.
That said, there are things you can do, whether you’re suffering from depression yourself or you know someone who might be – and there are also lifestyle changes you can make to help prevent the onset of depression.
1. Talk. That’s part of the genius of the Movember campaign: the “strong and silent” myth has done a lot of damage to men, and one of Movember’s main goals is to get men talking about their health – mental as well as physical. One of the nonprofit’s stated initiatives is “working toward a world where men and boys are comfortable having conversations about the big things in life.”
But you can talk about small things, too. Any kind of talk and regular social engagement helps with preventing depression: in one 2015 study, people who spent time with family and friends at least three times a week were half as likely to develop depression within a two-year period as were those with limited social contact. Face-to-face contact is the most crucial: research bears out the fact that email, texting, phone calls and Facetime or Skype simply don’t have the same positive health effects as personal contact with a friend or group of friends. For guys, even a small group gathering on a regular basis to watch a football or basketball game can make a difference.
2. Share your story. Another positive focus of the Movember campaign is to encourage men to share with each other their personal experiences of depression. Men in our society have often felt a kind of stigma around depression – the false belief that it signals weakness or failure. Depression is an illness with many different causes, including genetics, biology and underlying health conditions – and not one of them is “your fault.” Talking about your own experience and voicing support when others share theirs goes a long way towards changing the damaging (and false!) social paradigm that holds that depression is something to be ashamed of.
Sharing stories about the suicide of a friend or loved one is another way of helping yourself and others to cope with loss and understand the potential devastating impacts of depression. I am deeply proud of my youngest son for sharing our family’s story of loss as part of his college’s Movember campaign.
3. Small steps. While depression is an illness and not anyone’s fault, you can make changes to your lifestyle to help to prevent its onset and lessen its effects. Eating a healthy diet is important, as depression is tied to brain chemistry, and a wide variety of different nutrients are essential to brain health.
Exercise is another key: the Mayo Clinic lists exercise’s “psychological and physiological benefits” as important to mental well-being. Find a physical activity you like and stick with it: even walking around the block to start can help.
Sleep is the final big lifestyle piece: sleep equals healing for your body and brain. During sleep, certain key parts of the brain actually wake up and go into overdrive, most notably the brain’s toxin-flushing “glymphatic system.” When too many toxins pile up without enough sleep time for your brain to flush them out (at least 7 to 8 hours are needed for most of us), impairments in memory, reasoning and mood can follow.
4. Ask for help. This is the most important rule. There’s a reason there are mental health professionals – because they are professionals, people who’ve dedicated years of study and practice to helping people with issues like depression. Depression is treatable. Far from signaling weakness, asking for help – for yourself or for a loved one you’re concerned about – takes courage.
So please take the time to pause as Movember turns to December and share your stories, information, and friendship to help in the fight against depression – and then get back to the clean close shave your partner’s been waiting for!