Depression a tough challenge for boys

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The United States faces many crises. Yet, despite what are becoming ongoing national dialogues on mental health, education and gender equality, the ways these crises intersect is rarely discussed.

Specifically, more must be done to recognize and rebel against the ways boys’ and men’s conditioning toward self-reliance and toughness of character compounds the pain of depression.

According to the Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey, 13.5 percent of high school students in Cumberland County have seriously considered attempting suicide in the past 12 months. Statewide, 8.2 percent of high school students reported having actually attempted suicide at least once during the past year.

In fact, the Maine CDC’s most recent report recognizes suicide as the second-leading cause of death for Maine youth ages 15-24. Of those youth, 88 percent were boys or young men.

It is time for action to help our boys.

Although boys in Maine theoretically suffer from depression half as frequently as girls, they are eight times as likely to die by suicide.

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Part of this may stem from the fact that girls, while twice as likely to report depression than boys, get the help they need when they speak up.

Conversely, when boys are depressed, they often suffer alone. They do not ask for help. They go unnoticed, under-reported, and undocumented. Ultimately, they pay the price.

Perhaps that is because, for boys, depression is compounded with immense pressures to display toughness, aggression and stoicism. In the face of emotional vulnerability, boys from a young age are taught to “man up,” to quickly do away with any feelings that might be perceived as weak (or worse: girly).

Being a real man in America often means self-reliance, aggression and the stubborn obligation to provide. Too frequently, it also means an unwillingness to ask for help.

Society has created such a narrow box for “manhood” that very few men actually fit into it. It is no secret that society sets unfair standards for women in terms of body image, sexuality, career and family, but the rigid standards that boys and men are beholden to are often overlooked — and the many ways those constraints harm boys and men throughout the country.

In fact, multiple studies have shown that American boys’ and men’s inability to meet the standards set for them can often be directly linked to depression.

Once depressed, boys and men are significantly less likely than girls and women to seek out the supports they need — all for fear of emotional vulnerability (being labeled as less of a “man”). The more boys and men embody traditionally masculine values, the less likely they are to seek help for depression and emotional issues.

In other words, the very same masculine traits that can drive boys and men to depression also stop those same boys and men from reaching out for help when they need it most.

Thankfully, society has begun to recognize depression as a legitimate issue and to have national conversations about mental health — about our suffering children, our broken system and the lost lives that too often go unnoticed.

But to move these conversations forward, and to create real change on the ground, the different ways depression affects those of all genders must be acknowledged.

Men can’t afford to “suck it up” any longer. The toxic ideas that promote “toughing it out” as part of what it means to be a man must be dismissed. That is exactly the kind of work Maine Boys to Men is doing with boys, their parents and school systems. However, that goal cannot be achieved without strong community effort.

Adult males, modeling healthy masculinity, are needed, as are parents and teachers encouraging boys to know it is OK to feel.

The people in power, the ones who boys look up to and respect, can start by challenging the pervasive messaging that associates masculinity with aggression and stoicism.

It must be understood that it is healthy for boys and men to acknowledge and display emotional vulnerability. The first step in reducing the suicide rate of boys in Maine is to free them from the thought that they must suffer in silence.

Max Silverman is an intern for Maine Boys to Men studying sociology and education at Bates College. He is completing his senior thesis on the topic of masculinity and depression in high school.

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