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As his depression worsened, he realised he had to do something

Posted Jun 19 2010 1:35pm


Victor Marks was a teenager when he first felt that sinking feeling he’s since become so familiar with.

“Most high school kids have some kind of problem; some learn how to move through it, but I just got deeper into it,” says Marks, 67. “I had tremendous doubts about myself. I quit school early. I just wasn’t happy with the way life was going for me. Everything seemed wrong.”

Back in the mid-1960s, he says, nobody talked openly about depression even though many people were likely suffering from it. There were no support groups, no friends with whom he could commiserate, and certainly no Internet where he could quietly go for self-help. He says unlike today when people are more open about their personal lives, back then men were expected to act like … well, like men.

Consequently, he felt completely alone in his illness.

As his depression worsened, Marks recognized that he had to act — and fast. So he found himself a respected psychoanalyst and began a lifelong healing process involving talk therapy, medication to control his mood swings, and a great deal of apologizing when his emotions get out of hand.

“For men, we tend to have a set of rules,” says the Thornhill, Ont., resident. “We don’t want to feel as if we have a weakness. But we have to see [depression] as a sickness like a family member [should]. The only way you can do something about getting better is to literally fight the sickness. You have to work at it and realize when it’s happening — ‘I’m in it now, but I have to get out of it’ — and not be afraid to say you’re sorry.”

According to Dr. Arun Ravindran, clinical director of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s Mood and Anxiety Program, depression is both an emotion and an illness. The exact cause is unknown, but it can be triggered by several factors including genetics, stress, trauma, hormonal imbalance and the seasons. He says depression is on the rise, with every generation suffering more severely than the one before.

From a gender perspective, Dr. Ravindran says major depression strikes three to six per cent of men, compared to 10 to 25 per cent of women, and hits at two peak stages: in a man’s early 20s and in his 50s, when midlife hormonal changes begin.

Dr. Anthony Levitt, psychiatrist in chief at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, defines major depression as sadness or loss of interest that lasts virtually every day and all day for two weeks or more. He groups symptoms into three categories: those that are physical, such as low energy, restlessness, and changes in sleep pattern and appetite; those that are psychological, including excessive guilt, low self-esteem and wanting to die, and, those that are cognitive, such as difficulty concentrating and memory loss.

While most people experience several of these symptoms at some point in their lives, Dr. Levitt says it only becomes a concern when it starts interfering with everyday tasks.

He adds it’s even more challenging for men as they are traditionally reared to tough it out.

“We accept in our society that women might have depression, but men should just grin and bear it,” he says. “In women it’s seen as a part of life, but, for men it’s seen as a weakness, so it’s difficult to overcome that.”

A 2009 study sponsored by Wyeth Canada in partnership with Mood Disorders Society of Canada and Shepell.fgi reveals that almost 80 per cent of men with depression believe their symptoms disrupt their friendships, relationships, social life or leisure activities. More than half of men are concerned their boss might misconstrue a decrease in functionality caused by depression as lack of job interest. One-third quit their job as a result of their symptoms.

Dr. Ravindran says men with depression suffer from eating disorders more often than women, and tend to “self-medicate” more frequently with alcohol and drugs. Men also focus more on reduced libido and loss of nocturnal erections — both from the depression itself and the medication used to treat it — so might resist treatment.

Though women are more likely to attempt suicide, adds Dr. Levitt, men are more likely to “complete” it.

He says talk therapy works just as well for both sexes, but women are more likely to opt in.

Barry Shainbaum, a Toronto photographer, spent 20 years battling bipolar disorder and related depression, but has been free of it for 21 years, thanks to medication, therapy and hard work.

Today, the 58-year-old leads a men’s support group at the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario, so understands the stigma men face in dealing with that “devastating deep black hole of no hope.”

He urges more men with depression to acknowledge the illness, so they can get help.

“At some point, you just have to say, ‘This is my life. I’m going to get out there and live it. If you have a problem with me, that’s your problem. I’m going to be responsible for my life.’ ’’

Tips

Dealing with depression

Psychologist Dr. Richard Earle, managing director of the Canadian Institute of Stress in Toronto, says leaving depression untreated will continue the roller coaster of emotions and can put a person in physical danger. Here are his top tips to help men with depression get back on track
• Accept the painful pattern! Don’t worry about one-off signs that come and go, but pay attention to a pattern of symptoms.

• Normalize the situation! Some people need a label to make progress. It’s up to you whether you call it clinical depression or a medical problem, but figure out your new normal.

• Draw a self-portrait! Ask yourself: If you were feeling 20 per cent better, what would you do and how would you look? Discover one or two manageable actions and make them real!

• Take a breath! Deep breathing and other relaxation techniques help ward off mood swings.

• Visit a family doctor! Review symptoms to obtain a proper diagnosis, discuss treatments and rule out other serious illnesses.

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