This is momentous. I took my regularly scheduled depression questionnaire and, instead of the “moderate” or “moderately severe” that it’s been for a long time, it said “mild” when I submitted it! I’m mildly depressed! Hooray!
I’ve been taking Emsam for a few weeks, now. I don’t think I’ve felt such a dramatic improvement in my depression since the mega-high dose of lithium I was taking for a little while or the times I’ve done several ketamine infusions in quick succession.
Again – *knock wood, toss a pinch of salt, do all of the superstitious things to avoid a jinx* – it’s still early. I’m nervous about declaring it a success because my positive track record with antidepressants has always been sadly brief. But so far, it’s been very, very nice to feel better. So nice, actually, that I think I’m tricking myself into glossing over the symptoms that remain.
As soon as I hit “submit” on my PHQ-9, I considered that I may have been a tad overzealous in my answers because of how exciting it was to not be selecting “nearly every day” for every question. Not that I don’t think “mild” is an accurate descriptor, I just might have fudged on my answers a teensy bit.
Every time I’ve experienced a sudden improvement in my depression, I get really excited to, you know, not be so depressed and I get ahead of myself. I seem to think that a large improvement means I’m fine now and should push myself to do all of the things that I’ve been struggling to do for years.
And I do this EVERY TIME. It gets me into trouble when I take a nap and then feel immensely disappointed in myself because I expected to be instantly, spectacularly healthy. I’m reminded of this comic by ChuckDrawsThings:
Antidepressants don’t fix all of your life’s problems, but boy, do they make it easier for you to go about fixing some of them yourself. It’s amazing that I keep thinking, “I should do XYZ” and then finding myself just doing XYZ. There is so much effort that goes into every tiny decision and step of my life when I’m significantly depressed. It’s kind of mind-blowing how much easier it is to function as a human person. Is this how other people feel, or is this just early excitement of feeling better? I’m afraid that it won’t last.
I do feel a little less awesome than I did in the last two weeks, so I wonder if starting the Emsam right before a ketamine appointment sort of trampoline double-bounced me. It is unrealistic to expect that Emsam will just make everything better forever, so whatever benefit I can have, I’ll take. I’m curious about my next ketamine infusion; will it double-bounce me again?
Not everything is fixed, but overall, I feel remarkably lighter than I did pre-Emsam. Conversation is easier, I feel like I laugh more, and I find myself once again delighted by the little things – figuratively and literally – like this tiny prickly pear I saw yesterday.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month! One lesser-tackled mental health topic (in my opinion) is that of periods and mental health.
Invalidation: Public and Self
We often see in media the idea that a woman on her period is “crazy”- invalidating language that means it’s ok for others to ignore her feelings. I think it’s important to recognize that the hormonal changes we experience don’t suddenly make us different people. I, for one, become rather cranky, but not because I’ve developed a new set of preferences and opinions; I just have a lower tolerance for irritation. A much, much lower tolerance. Things that at any other time would simply make me shake my head suddenly either make me briefly, intensely angry or likely to burst into tears.
I find myself downplaying the effects of my period on my mental health all the time. I think it stems from its temporary nature. I know that it won’t last long, so it seems silly to let it take up much space on my list of mental difficulties. When I’m seeing red because somebody put a spoonful of cooked rice in the dishwasher and ran it, I invalidate myself. I tell myself that how I feel doesn’t matter because it’s caused by temporary hormones and my reaction is disproportionately intense. And it is temporary and more intense than is warranted. But the reality is, it’s extremely uncomfortable to experience month after month. Each small instance of unreasonable mood swinging adds up to something with tangible impact.
But it’s ~Natural~
Having a healthy menstrual cycle is a positive thing! If women for millennia have been dealing with theirs, why should I let mine be a roadblock for me? I’m sure women millennia ago thought it sucked just as much as we do, if not more. Modern methods of dealing with it hygienically and the availability of painkillers probably makes menstruating a good deal more comfortable for us. (Of course, there’s a conversation to be had about poverty’s restriction of women’s access to these modern resources. Not everyone enjoys the comforts of disposable period products. Here’s a good resource for learning about period poverty.)
There are definitely positive ways of talking about periods; their position in the menstrual cycle plays a vital role in fertility and reproduction, after all. That doesn’t eliminate the damage that periods can do to our mental health, however. We can recognize the beauty of a natural, cyclical process while also shaking our collective fists at Mother Nature.
PMS and Depression
As many as 3 in 4 women experience PMS. Symptoms include mood swings, irritability, crying spells, social withdrawal, and a host of uncomfortable physical symptoms. That alone is more than enough to be impactful when it comes to a person’s periods and mental health. And what about people who have a mental health diagnosis in addition to PMS? According to the Office on Women’s Health, “Many women seeking treatment for PMS have depression or anxiety. Symptoms of these mental health conditions are similar to symptoms of PMS and may get worse before or during your period.”
Personally, I can say with certainty that when I’m really struggling with my depression, my suicidal thoughts and the urges to self harm are worst leading up to and during my period. In fact, my period started a few days into my hospitalization in 2019 – a connection that I only made later on. The effects of the hormonal changes may be temporary, but my period is a setback to my mental health on a regular basis. And with an extremely serious thing like suicidal ideation, any factor that worsens it is nothing to be dismissed. Sometimes, even when things are getting better, I have sneaky, destructive thoughts because of hormonal fluctuations.
In those cases, it is helpful to remember that my period is to blame and that it will pass. I have to strike a balance, though. It’s easy for me to bully myself into feeling bad about slip ups and setbacks because “it’s just my period.” Hormones are powerful and their effects are very real, no matter how temporary.
Managing Periods and Mental Health
There are many ways to manage PMS for a better relationship between your periods and mental health. Many people find that lifestyle changes through diet, exercise, and healthy sleep are enough to improve their PMS, but your doctor might suggest other options as well. Hormonal contraceptives can help even out the dramatic peaks and valleys of hormone changes. For some people, PMS rises to the level of PMDD, or premenstrual dysphoric disorder. This can be treated through a variety of interventions.
It’s unfortunate that conversations about the mental health effects of the menstrual cycle are reserved only for certain private settings and are kept to a quiet minimum. Periods are a fact of life for many people. We should be able to discuss them openly as a legitimate factor affecting mental health. A survey of 1,500 women found that 58% have been embarrassed about their period at one point or another. 62% of respondents were uncomfortable even using the word “period.” Thankfully, there are many initiatives fighting stigma and working to provide resources to women and girls around the world, and we can keep the conversation going.
How does your period impact your mental health? Have you experienced period shame?
I’ve been taking Emsam, an MAOI antidepressant, for a few days now, and although I can’t say that I feel amazing, I think I do feel better than I did before I started. The two weeks between ending Wellbutrin and starting Emsam were a struggle, but hopefully will be worth it.
Emsam comes as a patch that you wear for 24 hours and then replace with a new one. It’s an adjustment to not just plop some additional pills into my organizer for the week. It’s ever-so-slightly more labor-intensive this way, but I think it has been easier for me to accept than previous medicine changes have been. I have some kind of hang-up about pills and how many I need, so adding a new one always upsets me. Even though Emsam is a new antidepressant for me, it seems to have bypassed my usual judgments by virtue of being a patch. Perhaps my inner critic is secretly a child placated by cool stickers.
I’m noticing some insomnia, but nothing horrible. In fact, the napping that had returned when I stopped Wellbutrin has been reduced again. Sometimes I still attempt to take a nap because, well, my napping problem is partly fatigue, partly escapism. So even though I still try to pass a few hours by sleeping, it hasn’t been working since the introduction of Emsam.
As a result, I’ve been doing a lot of yardwork. The dandelions are quickly taking over the backyard. Luckily, endlessly repetitive tasks are my jam. I’m digging them up one by one, a byproduct of which is some unintended soil aeration! I also took down all of the rabbit fencing that I used to make our backyard fence taller because Stella was jumping it last summer. That solution did not work for long.
In fact, she jumped a six-foot-tall fence in pursuit of a squirrel the other day, so there really is no containing her unless she’s on a strong tether. Might as well get rid of the unsightly fence addition. She causes me so much anxiety sometimes, but she’s still a wonderful dog.
Historically, I’ve been mean to myself about napping because I tell myself I should be doing something productive with that time. Now that I’m not napping (pretty much), I have lots of time to get stuff done. And I’m still mean to myself. What a surprise.
In sporadic bursts, I’ve been searching for a new job for a while. I’ll get started on it, saving postings, updating things, applying to a few here and there, but not really dedicating myself to it because my current job is “ok.” I know that I’m avoiding it. It used to be that I’d be mad at myself for wasting time by napping. Now that I’m not napping, I’m mad at myself for STILL not tackling it, despite having plenty of time as a conscious person. Then again, it’s only been a few days since I started Emsam, and perhaps it will make things easier with some more time.
I’m attempting to heed my therapist’s advice about how a gentler approach is more effective and that no, you won’t become a stagnant blob of disappointment if you stop beating yourself up about your perceived lack of progress. I’m unconvinced, but I’m trying.
A week ago, I stopped taking Wellbutrin so that I can try Emsam, an MAOI. (I have to wait two weeks between ending Wellbutrin and beginning the MAOI.) I think it was good timing that my most recent ketamine infusion was around the same time I stopped taking Wellbutrin because I’m already feeling pretty terrible. I have the sense that without it, this change might have been even more abruptly bad. Maybe it’s a good setup for when Emsam just blows my mood out of the water, right? A nice contrast will really emphasize its effectiveness. One can hope.
It’s safe to say that Wellbutrin was holding my hypersomnia at bay, and now that I’m not taking it, I’m basically a koala. (They sleep 18-22 hours per day, and not because they’re high on eucalyptus – they’re just dedicating lots of energy to digestion.) It would be great if I could selectively dedicate all the energy I save by sleeping to something else, like hair growth. I could be a brunette Rapunzel in no time.
It is endlessly disappointing to me that I can’t seem to function very well without antidepressants. You’d think I would have accepted it by now. And yet, every single time I change one of my medications and experience a sudden worsening of my depression, I get all upset with myself for not being able to handle it.
I considered this move for a while. SSRIs and SNRIs haven’t helped me much, so branching out to an MAOI seems worth a try. Wellbutrin was clearly helping, particularly in the motivation department, but it was still less impactful than I had hoped. Eventually, I decided that giving up the motivation that Wellbutrin gives me in the hopes that Emsam will help me even more is worth it. It does kind of suck that I can’t go directly from one to the other, though. Two weeks sans antidepressant is proving to be challenging.
A big part of me wanted to just leave things the same and continue to try to build on the benefits of Wellbutrin through my own “natural” efforts. Something that I wrestle with constantly is my uncertainty around what I should expect of myself. It never seems right to say, “I can’t do X because of depression,” because it pains me to be limited by my own brain. So, I continue to struggle far below meeting my perfectionistic standards for myself and then am crushed when “I can’t do X because of depression” turns out to be somewhat true. I never allow myself any grace when depression slows me down.
So, in the end, I’m feebly trying to convince myself that trying yet another medication is fine because if I could have worked my way out of depression by now, I would have. It’s important to do the work I can do day-to-day. But, as anyone with depression knows, it’s tough to do the things that you know are good for your mental health when your mental illness won’t get out of your way. Not impossible! Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been exercising, keeping up with my job, trying to eat 3 meals a day – the works. But that can only get me so far, and most of it tends to fizzle out when I’m in a mental place like this.
I felt okay on Wellbutrin, but ideally, I don’t want to settle for okay. But if Emsam doesn’t work out, it is nice to know that Wellbutrin is something I could return to. For now, I’ll just keep working on my Rapunzel hair and waiting for Wednesday of next week, when I can begin my MAOI experiment.
My last ketamine infusion was much less trippy than the previous one, so I’m relieved to say that I remember absolutely none of it. Much less fun to describe, but also less persistently, somewhat threateningly bizarre. We skipped the magnesium this time, and I did not have any sudden, limb-jerking spasms. It’s good to know that was likely the culprit. When I can’t remember an infusion, I feel pretty curious about the off-putting gap in my memory. I always think it’s interesting to know what I experienced during a ketamine infusion, and when I can’t, I feel like I’m missing out on something that I just can’t access. Thankfully, the benefits of ketamine infusions remain even when I can’t remember them.
I’ve been having some problems with nausea and appetite since starting Wellbutrin. They mimic what I feel when I’m really depressed, just amplified. Food is not appealing, neither in my imagination nor my mouth. When it’s time to eat, my goal is to find something that’s least unappetizing. Eating it is a strangely empty experience, as if I can recognize the flavors but can’t assemble them into something I like. The closest analogy I can think of is that it’s like the difference between sound and music. For a few days following a ketamine infusion, that problem is gone. It’s easy to pick something to eat, and not only does it register as, say, a grilled cheese sandwich, but my brain is also willing to exchange it for dopamine. Things taste like how food should taste, and it’s great.
Ketamine makes the days following an infusion feel remarkably lighter. The difficulty I have with making even small decisions is much improved. I just go about my days without getting stuck at every turn. Speaking of turns, I’ve really been enjoying my morning walks with Stella. When we come to an intersection, I let her choose, and we amble around a ridiculously inefficient route that’s different each day. I am typically a very routine-driven person, so this microscopic spontaneity is a teeny, tiny sign that says “ketamine helped!” If the ketamine wears off or some other factor occurs and my depression gets worse, I tend to become more rigid in the route we take. I’m sure Stella prefers our ketamine-lightened walks, and so do I.
Thinking about the Future
The bigger benefits of ketamine infusions, for me, are centered around my attitudes about the future. Depression makes me feel hopeless, and ketamine lifts that – sometimes just a little, but sometimes a lot. I’m not sure what determines the degree of helpfulness, but it’s always a welcome effect. It makes it easier to imagine myself making changes and taking big steps.
Other benefits of ketamine infusions that I notice include:
Feeling more social
Experiencing something called “fun”
Feeling satisfied about completing a task
Noticing little things that I appreciate or find interesting
Reduced suicidal thoughts (hasn’t been much of a problem recently, but I’ve definitely noticed that in the past)
Lately, I’ve noticed that the most noticeable changes stick around for a few days or a week, then things level off to a pretty neutral place where I’m neither jazzed about life nor am I in the pits of despair. By three weeks, I’m in something like the salt marshes of despondency; not inescapable, but pretty unpleasant.
That is a completely individualized timeline. Everyone is different, and I get the feeling from the forum I’m on that there are a lot of people who go much longer between needing infusions. I kind of try not to think about it because of what they say about comparison, I guess. (They = various quotes)
Musings about Medication
My medications may change again sometime soon, and although I just said that ketamine makes making decisions easier, I’m setting that choice aside for now. It’s harder to decide soon after an infusion because I feel like I don’t need to change anything. I feel better, therefore, I should keep things the same. But, ketamine wears off at some point, and even though I feel “better,” should I stop at that point? Maybe I only feel a fraction of my potential “better” but it seems like a lot because it’s better than abysmal. These choices are always hard. I don’t want to settle for just ok, but I worry that I’m expecting too much. Maybe this is exactly how happy people feel – they’re just more grateful for it.
But then a couple of weeks pass and I slowly start sliding backwards into napping and apathy and isolation, and I realize that there was no in-between. It was mildly happy and then increasingly depressed. There must be something more than that. I habitually blame myself for depression in the short term. A bad day or week makes me think that I let myself wallow and didn’t try to change things. I think that I’m lazy and burdensome and why can’t I just be cheerful? But when I look at the long-term – the years I’ve spent with depression – I feel kind of robbed. It’s easier to see the trends of it and the forks in the road where I didn’t pick the option the non-depressed me would have chosen. I may try to blame myself for all of that too, but the more reasonable answer is that depression has been in my way. Sometimes, that perspective makes me determined, and all of the other times, it makes me tired.
My last few months have been saturated with medication changes and mood fluctuations. I go up and down, up and down, and I’m thankful for the ups, but there’s something about the downs that feels so much more impactful. Despite the incremental progress I’m making after starting Wellbutrin, I feel completely insecure in that success, like it’s just visiting and will have to leave soon. A large part of me says that would be disastrous and I’ll just have to claw my way forward from here on out because losing ground would be unacceptable. I guess we’ll find out.
I’ve started bringing my dog to therapy. Does she sit with me and look patiently into my eyes while I cry? No, definitely not. She spends 10 minutes wandering around, smelling the smells of the week with great vigor. She pokes the diffuser with her nose, sticks her whole head in the trash can, and squeeeezes behind my therapist’s chair to not-so-sneakily smell her belongings. Then, she goes back and forth between the window and relaxing on the rug, ears perked up, listening for outside sounds. She comes over to me for pets and cookies every once in a while, but mostly, she’s just nice to have around as my unofficial therapy dog. She’s completely oblivious to my human problems. Looking at her blissful ignorance during therapy is like a brain palate cleanser.
You can’t help but wonder what she thinks of this development. Here we are, in this room we come to sometimes for no discernible reason. Pretty comfy. New smells since last week. 8/10. Would be better if I got second dinner. All that matters to her is that I feed her, walk her, and let her sleep at the foot of my bed. She’s a simple creature – intensely curious and frustratingly smart – but simple in that she really doesn’t need a lot to be happy.
She shares some of that innocent joy with me. She makes me smile every single day. It doesn’t matter how depressed I am – she does something goofy or sweet and has no clue that I find her antics ridiculous. Like how she leads with her face when encountering snowdrifts, or her exasperation at me taking constant photos of her, or the many, many hilarious faces of Sleeping Stella.
Sometimes, when I try to change something in my treatment(s), my depression says, “No, thank you.” Changing my medications has not gone well for me in the past, but I continue to clutch my personal dream of reducing the number of things I pick up from the pharmacy. I recently added a drug which required me to get off of something else, which overall, does not seem to have gone well. The options now are complicated and I don’t particularly like any of them, but I still have Stella! The routine, obligatory outdoor time, and turbo-boosted zoomies have done me immeasurable good. She demands my attention and action, and there’s really no telling her to just go entertain herself. Our walks are sacrosanct to her. No replacements. And no skimping on length, either!
This was part of my goal in adopting her, and it worked in more ways than just the responsibility of it. I thought that it would be healthy for me to be forced to get out of bed and do things, but that the emotional reward of that would come during my good times. I wasn’t expecting my unofficial therapy dog to be able to careen through the fog of my depression and make me smile every single day. A smile or laugh every day certainly doesn’t fix everything, but it’s something to be thankful for.
My mental health has once again taken a turn in a not-fun direction, which I attribute to some recent medication changes. So, instead of sitting here thinking, I should write something. I can’t think of anything to write, and then putting down anything I do write as being the worst drivel ever to appear on my screen because I’m in a rather negative headspace, I’m going to take you on a little diversion.
Did you know that an elephant’s sense of smell is twice as strong as that of a bloodhound’s? (C, that documentary led me astray. Google says twice, not four times.) This is what I said to my therapist the other day in one of my many, futile attempts to distract from the topic at hand. We’ve also discussed, among other things, a documentary I watched called “Octopus Volcano,” how scallops have eyes, and what “horse” is in ASL. Usually, when I share a fun fact like this, there’s a brief exchange and then she goes, “Well, that used up about a minute and a half.” And then we’re back where we started, just a little more entertained. This time, I think we probably used up, like, at least three minutes with the elephant fact. It may have been the most productive time-wasting fact I’ve ever pulled out of my sleeve. We got going on a train of thought that I think has some incredible real-world promise.
Just imagine: search and rescue ELEPHANTS. The police force bring out the specially trained sniffer elephants in super-wide trailers. They step down, decked out in vests that say “DO NOT PET. I’M WORKING”, but the vests are really just tarps secured around their bellies with bungee cords because the elephant service vest market just isn’t there yet. Soon, they’re working in airports, sniffing for bombs and drug trafficking. All floors have widened stairs and elephant-safe ramps, and next to the dog relief areas are rooms with piles of dirt for the pachyderms to toss over their backs. Retired sniffer elephants spend their golden years relaxing with their family herd with frequent visits from their old handlers, revered as heroes for their invaluable contributions. I think we’re on to something, here.
Is this a breakthrough? Did I have a breakthrough in therapy?! Yeah, yeah, it’s not about me, but a striking realization is a striking realization. Elephants are the next sniffer dogs. Maybe they’re not as motivated to please humans, and they do need to eat a tremendous amount of foliage as they travel great distances throughout the day, but I think those problems could be overcome with some creativity. There really is no limit to what you can take away from therapy.
Non-sequitur segue! Other problems that can probably be overcome include my current difficulties with changing my clothes and eating and getting work done and my general depression problems. Titrating down on an antidepressant can be tricky. I’m trying to figure out whether this dip in my mood is because this antidepressant was helping me more than I thought it was, regular old withdrawal, ketamine wearing off, or any number of other variables. I suppose time will tell. Let’s persist in our efforts to overcome wacky, theoretical elephant scenarios and the challenges of living life.
P.S. Good luck to the Google algorithm in trying to figure out what the heck this post is about. 🙂
And I love it. Well, “love” is too strong, but I have distinctly positive feelings about this change in my depression. From the outside, it may sound amazing to take a four-hour nap every day. Living it is a different matter. When you’re absolutely exhausted all the time and you crawl into bed simply because you don’t want to exist as a conscious person anymore, it’s not rejuvenating. When you go to sleep because you just want the day to be over and at least that way, you won’t perceive the passage of time, it’s not indulgent self-care. Instead, it’s just a black hole siphoning days, weeks, months of your life away from you. So, when you suddenly have every precious second of the day to be awake, it’s wonderful – and a little bit uncomfortable.
Wellbutrin is what’s still making me anxious – a side effect that Google says goes away within a week or two. Not so, for me, although hopefully, for a more complex reason. When I started taking propranolol, a beta blocker, to counteract the anxiety and jitters, I hoped that I could start to really enjoy my improved motivation. I’ve been mostly feeling like it arose solely as a product of anxiety that propels me from distraction to distraction. Instead, I encountered a strange result. Two propranolol per day had minimal effect, but three made me so shaky that I struggled to type or to use a spoon. This is weird, and not at all what’s supposed to happen. Perhaps I had a paradoxical reaction to it, but it’s hard to say. As for the anxiety, my psychiatric nurse practitioner theorized that the addition of Wellbutrin made for three medications in my list that deal with norepinephrine. I was making too much of it, essentially leaving me constantly primed for fight or flight. I’m now tapering down on one of those meds in preparation to increase the Wellbutrin.
Although the anxiety is improving, it still keeps me from napping most days. It’s that odd combination of being tired and full of energy at the same time. I want to close my eyes and rest, but it kind of feels like my trachea is the size of a large straw, and I can feel my heartbeat in my ears. It’s a tug-of-war between depression, which still votes in favor of sleep, and anxiety, which votes for frantic activity. Consequently, many of my days feel much longer than they used to because I’m unable to sleep. I’m still not as interested in my, well, interests as I used to be, so although I have this itch to be active, nothing seems quite right. The anxiety is also not nice, but it is a novel experience to be conscious for an entire day. There are so many hours to pass!
In an example day, I’ve:
fixed my clogged bathroom sink
drawn some potted plants
accomplished my part-time work in one sitting
refilled the bird feeder
took the dog to the vet
*perused the web for “doggles”
went for a walk
There have been some recent days that included naps, but on the whole, I’m pleased with my daily awakeness. Now to try not to go too far in this direction and become more anxious that I’m only doing very minimal activity and it somehow feels like a lot to me. Don’t. Over. Think. It.
*Doggles, or dog goggles, are on my shopping list because my dog, Stella, habitually develops eye infections, likely in the course of her high-speed, full-contact dog park outings. The doggles are for her to wear while we play fetch, silly as that is. But hey – ten bucks for doggles, or $180 for each vet trip? They also look awesome.
Being anxious and depressed at the same time feels like a mental contradiction. I feel mismatched, like my head and my body are going at different speeds. Many times during a day, depression tells me I’d like to sit and do nothing, but my body impolitely declines that option. I feel an almost constant low level of adrenaline, like someone jumps out of a closet and startles me 15 times a day.
Still, for me, this level of anxiety is vastly preferable to the hibernation I was doing before Wellbutrin. At least now, I have more motivation to stay out of bed and put my energy towards something productive. I feel more like a regular human who can get stuff done, as long as I can focus long enough to do it. I’ve decided to call this combination of symptoms “Depression on Fast-Forward”. If these were potatoes, they’d be hot potatoes, never in one hand for very long. Sometimes, they fall on the floor and split open, to later be relegated to the bin.
Distractions are helpful, as I wrote in my last post. My mom and I recently started cross-country skiing again, and wow, does it really shake your confidence in being proficient at standing upright. I fell five times on our first outing, and three times on our second outing, so I’m really improving on my wobbly wipeout score. That’s pretty good, I’d say.
I just recently figured out yet more issues with my pharmacy, so I’ll be able to try a beta blocker to help with the jitters. An added benefit of this is that it may help reduce my essential tremor. Upon hearing the news of my upcoming fine motor skills, my mom said, “You could do eye surgery!” And I said, “That is what’s holding me back from my love of eyeball operations.” My tremor has worsened in recent years, probably due to the lithium I take for depression, which is totally worth it, but still annoying. Sometimes, if I wake up very suddenly, I find my hands shaking so badly that I can’t unlock my phone. It’s somewhat disturbing, but again- worth it.
Depression on Fast-Forward is troublesome. I’m more active, but most of it is hollow. The bigger things I’m doing, like skiing with my mom, feel meaningful, but the rest of my time…not so much. Well, except for all of the puppies I’ve met lately. They were all amazingly, infectiously joyous creatures. That’s the solution – I need more puppies.
Four times more men die by suicide than women, and yet half as many men are diagnosed with depression as are women (1). In researching this topic, I was encouraged by the shift our society is making towards understanding depression in men and the factors that push them to such lengths. However, there is clearly still a long way to go. A book I skimmed early on in my search, aptly titled Men and Depression, by Sam Cochrin and Frederic Rabinowitz, mentions in the introduction that “A book that examines distress and depression in men may be seen by some as politically provocative.” In 2000, when that book was published, many researchers and clinicians were working to move public perception of mental disorders in men inch by inch. They recognized that the disparity between the number of men diagnosed with depression and the number of men who kill themselves indicates a hidden population of men who battle their depression in secret. 21 years later, the number of articles under a “depression in men” search in Google Scholar numbers over 3.5 million.
As a woman who suffers from depression, I feel relatively safe in disclosing my diagnosis. People are generally sympathetic and understanding when I discuss my symptoms. But how do men feel about the way their depression is received? A man I know has been dealing with depression for a long time, so I asked him exactly that question. Thankfully, he told me that his social circles have been largely supportive, which I think is an encouraging sign for our culture’s direction. But what factors make the rates of suicide between men and women so different? If we’ve come from “politically provocative” to millions of research articles in two decades, why are many men still suffering in silence? I want to dig into this issue to understand the historical trends, what sometimes makes depression in men different, and what we can do to keep the conversation going.
Historical Epidemiology of Suicide
In a really deep dive, we could go way back to Hippocrates and Galen to explore the perceived gender divide on mental disorders, which would be interesting. But in this context, we’ll stick to the 20th and 21st centuries. Let’s take a look at this set of data from the CDC’s Data Finder (12). It’s compiled mostly by decade between 1950 and 2015. This graph of the data, which I made with my rusty skills in Excel, illustrates the suicide trends by rate among men in various age groups.
Although the rate of suicide among all ages has remained relatively stable, trends within age groups are concerning. Suicides among 15-24 year-olds have increased dramatically, as have those among 25-44 year-olds. Despite a somewhat steady decline in the suicide rate of men aged 65 and older, they remain the group with the highest rate. By 2019, the rate of suicide in men had increased from 21.1 deaths per 100,000 to 23 deaths per 100,000 (13). For every 100,000 men, 23 deaths doesn’t immediately sound shocking. But to illustrate the numbers in a different way, consider that in 2019, a horrifying total of 37,256 men killed themselves in the U.S.
It introduces another layer of complexity to compare the data on men to the data on women. The suicide rate among women of all ages has increased since the 50’s more than it has among men, but it still sits markedly lower. In 2019, the overall suicide rate among women was 6.2 deaths per 100,000 people (13). Compared to 37,256 male suicides, the country saw 10,255 female suicides. Both of those numbers are unimaginable to me, but it’s worth investigating; why is the rate for men so much higher than it is for women?
The wildly higher rate of suicides among men than in women, combined with the average 2:1 ratio of depression diagnoses in women versus men, convincingly suggests that depression in men is going undiagnosed. An increasingly accepted hypothesis regarding this conclusion is that depression in men and women can be experienced in different ways (10). The current diagnostic tools don’t capture all of the symptoms of depression that men commonly face. The gender differences in symptomatology have led some to argue for the recognition of separate depression diagnoses for men and women. Magovcevic and Addis conceptualized the differences as constituting typical depression plus a subtype, masculine depression (6). Subsequent research shows that some men who don’t fully fit the diagnostic criteria on traditional depression questionnaires may be diagnosed when masculine depression symptoms are considered.
Masculine Depression Symptoms
“Masculine depression” (also called male depression and a variety of other terms), is characterized by more symptoms of anger, aggression, risk taking, and substance abuse than tend to occur in women. These symptoms are examples of “externalizing features.” They serve to express a person’s emotions in an outward, active way. “Internalizing features” of depression are identified by retreating into one’s self, such as by ruminating, engaging in negative self-talk, and isolating from others.
New Self-Report Scales
To investigate the efficacy of adjusted self-report scales at identifying depression in men, researchers created the Gender Inclusive Depression Scale (GIDS) using two other male depression scales validated with small cohorts. When symptoms of masculine depression – the externalizing features – are included in a traditional diagnostic survey, the rates of depression diagnoses among men and women are not significantly different (7). In other words, the gender differences disappear. Another scale, the Male Depression Risk Scale (8), measures emotion suppression, drug use, alcohol use, anger and aggression, somatic symptoms, and risk-taking. The sensitivity of the MDRS is similar to that of the PHQ-9 in recent suicide attempt identification (9).
Why is Depression in Men Sometimes Different?
To be clear, it’s a continuum; many men are diagnosed with depression using traditional questionnaires. But for the ones who aren’t, the answer is probably based in gender norms. Men who have depression and who identify with traditional ideals of masculinity are more likely to experience masculine depression symptoms (4). In a society that has traditionally viewed men who express sadness as “weak” or “feminine,” it makes sense that sometimes, depression in men is displayed as anger or in attempts to cope with it through substances. Sadly, it’s more socially acceptable for men to express anger than sadness, self-doubt, or anxiety.
Why is the Suicide Rate Among Men so Much Higher?
If newer diagnostic scales indicate that the rates of depression in men and women are actually more alike than previously thought, what is going on with the suicide rates? Why would men die by suicide four times more often than women? It’s hard to know how many suicides could have been prevented by mental health intervention, but it’s logical to think that men who aren’t seeking counseling or who are dismissed without a diagnosis would be more likely to turn to suicide as the answer. Additionally, we know that although men complete suicide more often than women, women attempt it more often (11). Men tend to use more lethal methods, and for some men, the act of suicide represents an affirmation of strength and independence (2). It is crucial that we improve identification and treatment of depression in men (5).
A Note on “Masculine” and “Feminine”
With all of this discussion about a “masculine” depression facet, I have a small fear that readers of this post will leave feeling as though their diagnosis of depression must have been of the feminine kind. It’s not. It’s just depression – men, women, nonbinary people – it doesn’t impose judgement on your identity, it simply is. Just as men may experience more anger and impulsivity as part of their depression, women may be more likely to suffer body image issues and self-harm behaviors. But it’s a bell curve; just because men are more likely than women to exhibit anger as a sign of depression doesn’t mean that women can’t as well. Statistically, neither gender is more closely associated than the other is with the typical symptoms (8). The only gendered difference exists in the subset of “masculine” symptoms. The core set of symptoms that are covered in typical scales like the PHQ-9 remain the main diagnostic components of what we know depression to be. Expanding the criteria by creating a subset of symptoms more associated with men is just a way of widening the net in order to keep people from falling through the cracks.
For more reading on how men can view depression, suicide, and masculinity, check out this article. The author provides evidence for a variety of views that men hold about how mental health and suicide relate to masculinity.
Identifying Depression in Men Going Forward
For a long time, our definition of depression was too narrow. The research on gender differences in depression, which I have only barely scratched the surface of, is vast and still growing. Although the standard depression questionnaires remain focused on internalizing features to the exclusion of the externalizing ones, authorities on the matter have acknowledged the issue in other ways. The American Psychiatric Association has a webpage from 2005 that describes the early research and what to watch out for in men who may have depression. They now have a number of web pages, magazine articles, fact sheets, and books about men and depression. Someday, I hope that standard depression questionnaires will include measures for symptoms that men exhibit, but until then, we can continue to reduce stigma and spread the word about how depression in men can manifest.
You can pass online resources on to the men you know. You can talk about it with your doctor. You can listen to your friends, fathers, brothers, and sons. Assure them that having feelings doesn’t make them less of a man, it just makes them human.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)
Rice, Simon, M, and Anne-Maria Moller-Leimkuhler. “Development and Preliminary Validation of the Male Depression Risk Scale: Furthering the Assessment of Depression in Men” 151, no. 3 (December 2013): 950–58.
Rice, Simon, M, John Ogrodniczuk S, David Kealy, and Zac Seidler E. “Validity of the Male Depression Risk Scale in a Representative Canadian Sample: Sensitivity and Specificity in Identifying Men with Recent Suicide Attempt.” Journal of Mental Health, November 2017, 132–40.