The Male Mode of Depression, Part 2: Where It Comes From

The three most destructive words that every man receives when he’s a boy is when he’s told to “be a man.”         ~ Joe Ehrmann

In part 1 of this series of articles (here), we found out what male depression looks like. I started there because I wanted you to know what we’re talking about and to have an idea of how it differs from so-called “clinical depression.” Armed with that knowledge, we’re now ready to explore how men get that way. If we know that, then maybe someday preventative measures can be put into place. In the meantime, let’s start our exploration by picturing a young boy standing in front of his father, step-father, brother, uncle, grandfather, coach, male teacher, priest, minister, or any other significant male figure in his life. Picture him hearing, over and over again, the words, “Be a man.”

From here on out, it doesn’t matter who or what or how that boy really is. Maybe he likes to play with Barbies or wear dresses or make art or figure skate or read books or hang out with his mom. None of that matters, other than being suddenly and strictly forbidden from now on. He’s received his forever marching orders: he can only be what somebody else says he should be, this mysterious creature called “a man.”

I could probably end this article right here and you’d know all you need to know. Anyone, and I mean anyone, who is not allowed to be who they are and is forced to be something other than they are will have a long and promising career in the rapidly growing field of being depressed. But let’s keep marching through some more specifics and see what else we find (if you dare!).

There is a lot to be said about what it means to be a man and to follow what I call the “Man Code.” I’ve taken up that topic here. Please take a look. One way to summarize it is this: “Don’t be a woman.” Don’t do or say or feel anything that might even remotely be something a woman might do, say, or feel. In fact, don’t feel at all! Here again, anyone who does not allow themselves to feel stuff will eventually wind up depressed.

In addition, constantly trying to prove a negative (“not a woman”) can be extremely stressful. Due to this stress, our hero continues down the slippery slope to depression. Stress can be a major factor in becoming depressed. OK, back to our heroic young boy.

At age 3 to 5 years old, boys are typically guided away from their moms so they don’t become “feminized,” “emotional,” or even (yikes!) “homosexual.” Not only is this bullshit, this disconnects boys from their big-heartedness, feelings, openness, and connections to others, especially girls and women. Furthermore, from the moment of birth, boys, when compared to girls, are spoken to less, comforted less, and nurtured less. Thus begins a process of internalized disconnection from others that haunts boys and men throughout their lives and leaves them open to depression. The disconnect from mom also leaves it up to fathers to teach and model how to “be a man.”

Speaking of fathers, oh, boy! Our young hero’s father typically carries on the cultural legacy described above, bears the associated “wounds,” and passes them onto his son. The son may experience his father as wounded, sensing his father’s deep sadness, feelings of incompetence, or anger stemming from the treatment the father received as a boy (see above). The son may also experience his father as wounding, evoking the loss and the needy feelings the son experiences in being rejected by or disappointing to his father. The son may internalize distorted or idealized images and memories of his father as he struggles to find his identity as a man. This process is the “father woundlegacy of the son, the father, the father’s father, and so on. It may be carried forward when the son becomes a father himself. How depressing!

Boys wish to be good sons even in the face of: an angry or judgmental father; an emotionally distant father; a verbally or physically abusive father; a saintly or heroic father; a self-sacrificing father; a depressed or bitter father; an absent father; and so on. Each of these father-types pass on their own special flavor of “father wound.” In turn, boys wish for an idealized father to love them and may later engage in an activity or career where they can try to find one. These might include: sports teams, Boy Scouts, military service, police or firefighters, corporations, street gangs, or other male-dominant organizations. They may not (probably not?) find what they’re looking for and may experience profound disappointment along the way. Depression, depression, depression.

You may feel that I’ve harped on the “father wound” concept long enough and maybe so. However, this is a huge deal for most (all?) men and sets men up for a literal legacy of depression.

Had enough? But wait! There’s more!

Don’t forget social and behavioral factors such as poor diet, lack of proper exercise, lack of routine medical care (“I’m fine”), work stress, lack of social networks and supports, and so on. These things occur regularly in a typically man’s life, again primarily due to the man’s indoctrination in the Man Code and subsequent efforts to try to live by it. All of these increase the risk of depression.

Last, but by no means least, any history of abuse during childhood (or adulthood for that matter) vastly increases the odds of the man having depression as an adult (or as a child for that matter). This might include: physical abuse, sexual abuse, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, or neglect. I’ll leave that as it is for now, since it’s a huge topic in and of itself.

So, at this point, I invite you to scan back over the words in bold letters above and see what applies. The more factors that apply, the higher the probability of the man experiencing some form of depression, whether covert or overt. If you find this process depressing, I’m not surprised.

With all these factors, I also wouldn’t be surprised if the so-called incidence level of depression in men is close to 100%. As I noted in Part 1, it shows up in interesting ways that aren’t always detectable to the untrained eye, so it’s hard to know for sure. Furthermore, most men are very reluctant to seek help unless something happens to wake them up out of their Man Code stupor. The next article will explore these wake-up calls. Yes, there is hope!

Copyright 2018 Daniel J. Metevier