Why Is My Husband Depressed and How Do I Help Him?
What we call depression has likely been around since before recorded history and has been recognized for thousands of years. Aretaeus of Cappadocia (circa 81-138 AD) is credited with the first clinical description of depression. Hippocrates, the Greek physician of antiquity, was well aware of the disease of depression and called it melancholia. Whatever we call it, depression is becoming an increasingly significant problem for men and the women who love them. Women can be frustrated and wonder, "Why is my husband depressed?"
It’s often the woman who first recognizes depression in her mate, even when the man doesn’t see it or is resistant to dealing with it. That was certainly the case for my wife and me.
Getting Through to the Man In Your Life Isn’t Easy
My wife, Carlin, and I walked tentatively into the nicely restored old building to attend the “family weekend.” Our son had been in treatment for a drug problem and we were there to learn and offer support. As part of the weekend experience, all the family members were given various questionnaires to fill out. One was a depression questionnaire. We dutifully filled it out and my wife scored “high” while I scored “low.” Carlin talked to a counselor who suggested that she might want to get evaluated for depression when we returned home.
Driving back we talked and it became clear that Carlin had been feeling depressed for some time. Once home, she saw a doctor, was evaluated, and received treatment. Her life and mine changed for the better. It was like she had come out of a fog. Her joy returned and she became much more fun to be around.
A few months into her treatment, Carlin suggested that I might be depressed as well and wanted me to see her doctor. I promptly refused. “I’m not depressed,” I told her. “If I were I’m sure I’d know it. I’m a therapist and I treat depression. I’d certainly recognize it in myself.” She just gave me a gentle smile. “OK, it was just a suggestion,” she said. “Anyway,” I reminded her, “I took the depression quiz at the treatment center and I scored low.” As far as I was concerned the case was closed.
However, there were some disturbing thoughts that would pop into my head. Although I didn’t see myself as “depressed,” I certainly didn’t feel happy. It seemed as though the stresses of life kept building up until I wanted to scream, “Leave me alone. I just want some peace!” I found I was often irritable, angry, preoccupied, and withdrawn. But that couldn’t be depression, could it?
I convinced myself that my irritability and anger were justified. “Who wouldn’t be upset with what I have to put up with,” I would call out to anyone who would listen. “I’m stressed out at work, the kids seem to go out of their way to get on my last remaining nerve, and my wife is going through menopause.”
Carlin received the brunt of my anger, which she fought to deflect. But what did she expect? If she’d just be nicer, more loving, more interested in sex, everything would be okay. It never occurred to me that my constant anger made it nearly impossible for her to be nicer, more loving, or more interested in sex.
More and more often I found I was having fantasies of running away from it all. I’d see myself getting in my car and just driving into the sunset. Other times I saw myself with another woman, someone who was kinder and gentler and understood me—someone like Carlin used to be. Those thoughts excited and scared me. I knew we couldn’t go on like this, but I had no idea what to do.
Finally, Carlin made the decision for me. “Look,” she told me directly, “we’re both miserable. If our marriage is going to survive, you’ve got to see someone.” Reluctantly, I made an appointment with the doctor she had seen. He did a complete evaluation and I was sure he would say I was a normal guy who had to deal with a lot of stress in his life. Instead, he told me I was suffering from depression and would benefit from treatment. I was shocked. I thanked him and was about to leave when he said something that hit me between the eyes, “You need to be aware, Mr. Diamond, that men often experience depression differently than women, and highly successful and intellectual men, in particular, often deny that they are depressed.”
When I returned home Carlin was anxious to hear the results. I told her what the doctor had said and she seemed relieved. I told her I wanted a second opinion. She blew up. “You want a second opinion? I’ll give you a second opinion. You’re depressed and you need treatment just like I did. It helped me and it will help you.” She turned and walked out of the room.
I didn’t want to believe I was depressed. It just didn’t fit with my view of myself. And it didn’t fit with what I knew were the symptoms of depression. My mood wasn’t depressed most of the time. I hadn’t lost interest in my work or activities I loved. I slept fine and my energy was OK. I didn’t feel worthless and I didn’t think of killing myself.
I did decide to see another doctor. Even though I liked this one much better than the first, she told me essentially the same thing as doctor number one. She also explained that men who are depressed are often hypersensitive, irritable, and angry. She gave me a book to read by a world-renowned psychologist, Kay Redfield Jamison. In her bookThe Unquiet Mind she described depression in a way that cut to my core. “You’re irritable and paranoid and humorless and lifeless and critical and demanding, and no reassurance is ever enough. You’re frightened, and you’re frightening, and ‘you’re not at all like yourself but will be soon,’ but you know you won’t.”
She also told me about the work of Dr. Ronald Kessler at Harvard. Kessler describes depression in men this way. “When you study depression among children, they don’t talk about being sad, they talk about being angry and irritable,” he said. “Children don’t have the cognitive capacity to make sense of all their feelings. There’s a great similarity between children and men. Men get irritable; women get sad.”
I could no longer deny the truth. I was dealing with depression. I agreed to begin therapy and get the help I needed, but had been resisting for so long. I found that my life turned around. I wasn’t so hypersensitive. Little things didn’t bother me as much. I wasn’t so reactive and I felt less irritable. As Carlin described it, “You used to look at me in a way that chilled me. Your eyes were narrow and beady. Now when you look at me I feel your love. It’s wonderful.”
Things have continued to improve for us. I know there are millions of other men, and husbands, out there who are depressed, but don’t know it. I developed a questionnaire that seemed to get at the irritability that is at the core of the kind of depression that many men experience. If there is anyone who would like to take it you can do so at www.IMSquiz.com. My hope is that it will allow more men like me to get the help they need. What do you think? What has been your experience with a depressed husband? What have you done that helps?
Jed Diamond, PhD, MCSW, is the Founder and Director of the MenAlive, a health program that helps men live long and well. Though focused on men’s health, MenAlive is also for women who care about the health of the men in their lives. Diamond’s book, MenAlive: Stop Killer Stress with Simple Energy Healing Tools, brings together the wisdom accumulated in 40 years helping more than 20,000 men, women, and children.Click here to comment on depression.