More Than It Seems: The Subtle Signs of Depression in Men

by Jean Holthaus

Irritability. Insomnia. Increased drinking. Acting out. Headaches. Backaches.

These are just a few telltale signs that he could be suffering from depression.

According to the Center for Disease Control, more than 6 million American men suffer from depression each year. In fact, a man is 28 times more likely to experience depression than prostate cancer, the most common cancer in men. Unfortunately, more than half of the men with depression go undiagnosed and untreated.

Why aren’t we noticing the signs? Actually, we may be looking for the wrong signs. Most men don’t usually express depression as the sadness and crying typically equated with the illness. Instead, they often become angry, irritable, drink more and throw themselves into work to avoid and hide their feelings.

Here are the three most common symptoms of male depression:

1. Physical Discomfort

Depression affects more than just his emotions; it often manifests in aches and pains, including backaches, headaches, sleep problems and digestive problems.

2. Anger

While women tend it feel sad, anger is a primary emotion in men who are experiencing depression. Signs include sudden mood changes, irritability, loss of sense-of-humor, ranting, road rage, aggression and abusive or controlling behavior

3. Risky Behavior

If he is demonstrating a devil-may-care attitude­—such as driving too fast, having unprotected sex, abusing drugs or alcohol and gambling— something is probably amiss.

Why aren’t doctors catching depression symptoms? 

There is a common perception among men that expressing emotions, complaining and seeking help is a sign of weakness. When men do go to the doctor, they tend to minimize their symptoms or focus primarily on the physical symptoms like fatigue, pain, headaches or difficulty concentrating that often accompany depression. Physicians frequently attempt to treat these symptoms without realizing there may be a deeper, unaddressed illness.

Stressful life events can trigger depression.

Be alert for signs of depression during unusually stressful times. These events can be difficult and sad, such as a death or illness in the family, job loss, divorce, financial difficulties and health problems. But positive occasions, like getting married, receiving a promotion, having a new baby, reconciling with a spouse, sending a child off to college or even a vacation, are also stressful and can result in depression.

How do we help?

It’s important to let men know they don’t need to tough out depression by themselves. Offer to assist them in finding help and provide support during recovery.

Depression is very treatable; medication combined with counseling is effective more than 75 percent of the time. Both the American Psychiatric Association and American Psychological Association consider cognitive behavioral therapy and interpersonal therapy the psychotherapy gold standards of treatment. In some cases, transcranial magnetic stimulation is a successful non-drug alternative.

Having someone to talk to about their feelings is essential. Listen without judgment and remember you don’t have to fix it. Suggest he reach out to safe and supportive friends and family members or encourage participation in a support group.

Regular Exercise Helps

Propose a walk together around the park while the kids are at soccer practice, a lap swim at the Y with his buddies or a family ride down one of the local bike trails.

Although comfort foods like sugary snacks, chips, pasta and french fries are tempting, they can lead to mood crashes. Stock the house with healthier snack foods and try incorporating more complex carbs, Omega-3 fatty acids (found in fatty fish, flaxseed and walnuts), citrus fruits, leafy greens, beans, chicken and eggs into meals.

If you or someone you love is struggling, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. While the cause of depression is often initially unclear, remember that no one is ever alone and help is readily available.


Jean Holthaus, LISW is a licensed social worker with Pine Rest Christian Mental Health and a regular contributor to Simply Good magazine.


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