Recently, I was at a conference speaking with an acquaintance who teaches at a small liberal arts college in the Northeast. We got to catch up on many things, our families, politics, President Obama, our careers, siblings, academic life in general. For the most part, things are going well for both of us. However, in the case of my academic colleague, he disclosed the fact that one of his relatives who is a college sophomore at another institution had been suffering from deep depression for quite some time. The most intriguing part about his story was that no individual who was close to the young man — his siblings, parents, friends, relatives — seemed to be aware of the torment he was facing. As a result of his condition, he lost weight, his grades dropped dramatically and he was placed on academic probation by his institution.
The sad reality is that this story is not an aberration or an isolated incident. The fact is that more and more college-age men are suffering from depression. According to a recent report by the National College Health Assessment Study, more than 55 percent of male college students reported feeling an acute level of sadness in the past year. Moreover, a study conducted by the American College Health Association found that 25 percent of college men felt so depressed that they found it difficult to function in a normal manner and 6 percent had contemplated suicide. The same percentage, 6 percent, had received treatment for depression.
A 2010 study conducted by the American Psychological Association found that the number of students on psychiatric medicines has increased more than 10 percent over the past decade. While depression among college students has always been commonplace, it appears that a few more students (especially young men) are actually acknowledging their predicament or are more willing to openly discuss it. Many experts on the illness state the signs and symptoms tend to differ between men and women. Men also tend to implement different coping skills — some healthy, others not so much — in an effort to combat their distractions.
To be sure, college age men are not the only males afflicted with the disease commonly referred to as “the silent killer.” Men of all ages, races and socioeconomic backgrounds can be victims. Some signs of depression among men include:
- Escapist behavior
- Alcohol or substance abuse
- Controlling, violent or abusive behavior
- Inappropriate anger
- Risky behavior
- Infidelity or unhealthy relationships
The fact is that our society has conditioned men to refrain from being too emotive in their feelings. Historically speaking, it has been seen as inappropriate for men to demonstrate any sort of personal vulnerability. Such behavior, for the most part, was considered off limits. Men who exposed their vulnerabilities were seen as less masculine, emasculated or effeminate. Rather, men have been taught to be strong, self-reliant and as impervious as possible. Consequently, many men, (due to societal expectations and personal decisions) have suffered in silence.
Like many other illnesses, depression does not discriminate by race. There are a number of studies confirming that the disease is widespread in the Black community and that Black men are particularly vulnerable. Two journalists, John Head, author of Standing In The Shadows: Understanding And Overcoming Depression In Black Men; and Donovan Ramsey, author of the article “Trouble Man: Black Men, Depression, and Suicide,” have written extensively, passionately and eloquently about the topic of Black men and depression. Ramsey’s recent article detailing the suicides of three young, intelligent, seemingly outgoing Black men with promising careers was itself depressing and heartbreaking.
A disproportionate number of Black men are more likely to be in denial about the state of their emotional and mental health. Black men are taught to be supermen who “have it all together” and thus, have no need for such treatment or diagnosis. It is this sort of “real men don’t need help” and “keeping it real” attitude (coupled with other societal and environmental factors) that results in Black men having the shortest life expectancy of any group in America. This dismissive attitude must be replaced with a more diplomatic and dedicated one.
This is not to ignore college women or women in general of all ethnicities who are suffering from depression. However, statistics demonstrate that our female counterparts are inclined to be more vigilant in seeking treatment. Men must take similar steps in being more aggressive in combating their individual illnesses. Dr. Aaron Rochlen, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, has produced evidence demonstrating that men commit suicide at four to six times the rate of women due to depression. Such statistics are alarming. In short, this is a crisis that cannot continue.
— Dr. Elwood Watson is a full professor of history and African-American studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of several award-winning academic articles, several anthologies and is the author of the book Outsiders Within: Black Women in the Legal Academy After Brown v. Board.