By Javier Mendoza
When Alex Villaneda was 15, his father passed away. It began a years-long bout with depression that he felt he could not tell anyone about.
“I felt I must be the only one that feels this way, and I’m weak as a man because everyone else is alright,” Villaneda said.
Last week’s admission by rapper Kendrick Lamar about his struggle with depression and this summer’s suicide of internationally acclaimed comedian Robin Williams, brings national spotlight to the discussion of depression and it’s affects on men.
Depression remains largely under-diagnosed in the male population. While men are diagnosed at lower rates than women, men commit suicide at rates that are 4 to 18 times higher than women, depending on the age group, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In addition, suicide rates have seen a sharp rise among Americans. More people now die of suicides than from car accidents.
For many men like Villaneda, depression is a hidden secret that can be further compounded with the stigma associated with manhood.
“We have expectations of manhood that are very rigid,” said Dr. Shira Tarrant, gender studies professor at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB). “These include men don’t cry, they can’t back down and they shouldn’t feel. What that means is when men feel, that’s the equivalent of not being a man. Oftentimes, that gets in the way of men coming forward to say I’m depressed or struggling. Hopefully, this is changing.”
It is these notions of masculinity that make it much less likely for men to seek out help.
“Culturally, men have a hard time to even talk about vulnerability, let alone accepting it,” says Mifa Kim, a graduate peer counselor for Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at CSULB. “There’s a stigma regarding gender, so we need be mindful of that when we reach the community.”
In addition to rules of masculinity, ethnic cultural norms can also put added pressure on depressed men.
“As the oldest male in my house, as Mexican, and a male in general, I couldn’t show any of these feelings,” said Villaneda, who is now an undergraduate peer counselor for Project OCEAN at CAPS. “Being Hispanic adds a whole other layer because of the whole machismo thing where you don’t show emotions at all, not even being happy.”
To cope, he would vent to friends who were women and going through the same thing. Villaneda said he couldn’t talk to his male friends because he was afraid they would just tell him to “man up.”
Villaneda remembers other sensing other men going through similar depression-related issues—in particular, his best friend. Although both were struggling with mental health at the same time, neither reached out to the other for help because of fear of the backlash.
“I trusted him with my life, but I didn’t trust him with my feelings because of the fear of being judged,” Villaneda said. “I could’ve avoided a lot of suffering. I should’ve talked to more people. I should have talked to my mom definitely, but I don’t know if I would have gone to counseling because there’s a stigma still ingrained in my mind.
Villaneda is now working towards helping other people and believes that public education around depression like the “Real Men. Real Depression” project, which features the personal stories of men who have depression, that help men feel more comfortable coming forward.
“I’m trying to spread that awareness that it does affect men even if we pretend it doesn’t,” said Villaneda, saying he believes stigma is starting to decrease for men seeking help.
“With the Internet, we have access to the whole world and we see other people talking about depression and going to counseling,” Villaneda said. “So, that openness and sharing of information is going to allow younger generations to start opening up and acknowledging mental health as supposed closing up and think there’s something wrong with you.”