Study: We're Less Likely to Recognize Symptoms of Depression in Men

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In particular, men have trouble knowing when other men are depressed.

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PROBLEM: We know that depression is much more common in women than men, but how do gender differences affect who we encourage to seek help?

METHODOLOGY: Vignettes covering the standard symptoms of depression in non-clinical language were presented to a representative sample of 1,218 British adults. The stories were all identical, but half referred to a female character, while the other half were about a male:

"For the past two weeks, Jack/Kate has been feeling really down. S/he wakes up in the morning with a flat, heavy feeling that sticks with her all day. She isn't enjoying things the way she normally would. In fact, nothing gives her pleasure...He/she finds it hard to concentrate on anything. He feels out of energy and out of steam. And even though Jack feels tired, when night comes he can't go to sleep."

After reading the stories, the participants were asked whether they thought the character might have a mental disorder, and how likely they were to recommend that he or she seek professional health. They were also asked how distressing they thought the character's problem was, how difficult it might be to treat, and how sympathetic they felt toward him or her.

RESULTS: Participants were significantly more likely to assert that Jack wasn't suffering from a mental disorder. Men, in particular, were more likely than women to come to this conclusion. On the other hand, men and women were equally likely to conclude that Kate had a mental disorder.

Respondents, particularly men, rated Kate's case as significantly more distressing, difficult to treat, and deserving of sympathy than they did Jack's case. And women were more likely than men to think that Jack's story was distressing.

IMPLICATIONS: The attitudes expressed by the participants, author Viren Swami explains, "are consistent with the notion that dominant gender role ideologies shape attitudes toward mental health." It's been suggested that people have difficulty reconciling notions of strength and toughness with the symptoms of depression, making it more difficult for depressed men to attain understanding and acceptance for their disorder. Men even tend to experience depression differently -- the disorder tends to manifest itself as physical discomfort or irritability, as opposed to women's more emotion-based symptoms. This may be because, for men, an overabundance of "feelings" is a less culturally acceptable mode of expression.

These results indicate that progress in raising awareness can be made by focusing efforts both at and on men. Regardless of the cause, for more people with mental health disorders to get early and effective treatment, those around them need to be able to recognize their symptoms and encourage them to get help.

The full study, "Mental Health Literacy of Depression: Gender Differences and Attitudinal Antecedents in a Representative British Sample" is published in the journal PLoS ONE.

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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