She remembered the sound of splashing, then the shot. It was the early 1920s, and my grandmother, then a small girl, was being given a bath by an aunt who had come to stay with the family while my great-grandmother battled what was called "melancholia." As the little girl played in the tub, her mother slipped away to another part of the house, took a pistol and killed herself.
I was told the story in the way of warning: depression ran in the family. And as Julie Scelfo writes in our cover this week, men need all the warnings about mental health they can get. As remarkable as it seems in the age of Oprah and Dr. Phil, we remain reluctant to confront the possibility that our irritability, dark moments and even despondency are not random feelings but may be symptoms of clinical depression, and are thus treatable if diagnosed. What William James called "a positive and active anguish" is yielding, slowly but in significant ways, to scientific analysis and medical treatment.
For many Americans, depression lost its stigma long ago, but our reporting shows that men are still much less likely than women to seek help. It is a kind of self-defeating machismo: what matters more, feeling engaged and connected to the world, or appearing tough when you are secretly miserable? The answer seems pretty clear.
For those inclined to dismiss talk of depression as self-indulgent or driven by a late-20th- and early-21st-century tendency toward victimhood, it is worth noting that melancholia, later commonly referred to as depression, has been viewed as a medical condition for 2,500 years, from Hippocrates to Aristotle to Galen to Robert Burton's landmark 17th-century treatise. Dante acknowledged--today we would say "opened up" about--his depression in the first verses of his "Divine Comedy," telling readers that his imaginative journey to hell (and ultimately to heaven) began when he "found myself in a dark wood, for I had lost the right path."
There are, as our piece notes, many ways out of the forest--but you have to want to make the trip. "Instead of recognizing their problem and seeking help, men drink, gamble, overeat and have affairs," Julie says. "They can be irritable, short-tempered and angry--basically act like jerks, lashing out at their wives and children--when really those behaviors are coping strategies to deal with enormous stress and anxiety inside."
Six million American men will be diagnosed with depression this year, and doctors believe millions more are still in the shadows. As Julie worked on the story, she says, "I began to realize I had been seeing depressed men all my life: the father of a high-school friend, who spent every night drinking alone in an armchair; the college companion who confided that his parents had each lost a brother to suicide."
There is more at stake than just one's own mental well-being. As Barbara Kantrowitz writes, the effect on families can be devastating, and lasting. We hope this story helps a bit--that male readers and the women in their lives will keep an eye out for the warning signs. My grandmother, a cheerful woman, grew up to teach English at the university in our hometown, and loved Shakespeare. Her life, I now realize, was a long campaign to survive the "sea of troubles"--the phrase is Hamlet's--that had consumed her own mother. The lesson of our cover is that no one has to carry on the fight by himself.