October 5, 1997 in Features

Many Men Suffer Silent Depression It’s A Topic Males Find Difficult To Talk About

Bob Condor Chicago Tribune
 

There’s no crying in baseball at least, that is what an exasperated Tom Hanks as manager told one of his female players in the movie “A League of Their Own.”

But when ex-Cubs center-fielder Brian McRae was traded to the New York Mets, the media reported that his friend and All-Star teammate, Mark Grace, cried for 20 minutes when he heard the news.

There is more poignant evidence that human emotions filter into even the macho world of professional sports. Pete Harnisch, a pitcher whom the New York Mets traded to the Milwaukee Brewers, earlier this season went on the disabled list with clinical depression, then openly discussed it. He is the first professional athlete to own up to an illness that afflicts some 17.6 million Americans.

Harnisch has been praised by mental health experts for talking about his illness. But masculinity still has its quirky traditions.

“Men are generally not comfortable talking about depression,” said Dr. Robert M.A. Hirschfeld, chairman of the psychiatry and behavioral sciences department at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, macho country if there ever was such a place. “We are making progress, but our culture doesn’t encourage men to ask for help. It’s time we realized the Gary Cooper-I’m-gonna-do-it-by-myself approach is not healthful.”

Harnisch received much support from his Mets teammates and other friends around the major leagues. White Sox pitcher Doug Drabek, a former teammate in Houston, has been a regular caller. One other Houston teammate who phoned a couple of times a week said he and other players wanted Harnisch to know “we loved him.”

“One thing I find is once I get men into the office (for psychotherapy), they are as willing to talk about their feelings as women,” said Hirschfeld.

What separates Harnisch from many other depressives, besides his celebrity status, is the fact that his illness was recognized. Earlier this year, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that clinical depression, which strikes about one-fifth of all Americans at some point in life, is adequately treated in only 27 percent of cases.

Statistics show that women suffer cases of depression about twice as often as men, even after female willingness to see a doctor and receive a diagnosis is considered.

But that still leaves plenty of guys facing such emotional symptoms as loss of enthusiasm for activities previously enjoyed, intense feelings of worthlessness, inordinate fear and, in more severe cases, a desire to hurt oneself.

Depression can baffle patients and doctors alike because it first might manifest itself in the form of physical ailments associated with other illnesses, including headaches, gastrointestinal disturbances, early morning wakefulness, decreased appetite, lethargy, leg pain and frequent infections.

For example, when Harnisch was suffering from sleepless nights and heightened anxiety, he thought maybe his fear of pitching and physical exhaustion were related to withdrawal from his habit of chewing tobacco. There were also theories that his typical huge appetite and joy for life had been subdued by a recurrence of Lyme disease or a possible thyroid condition (he lost 30 pounds).

After a series of physiological and psychological tests, the diagnosis was depression.

Terrence Real is a Cambridge, Mass.-based family therapist and author of an insightful book about men and depression, “I Don’t Want to Talk About It” (Scribner). His perspective is that men suffer from “unrecognized depression” that gets categorized as addictive behavior (drinking, gambling, taking drugs) or a predisposition to domestic violence.

Figuring in these cases, Real deems men and women to be about equal in depressive illness.

A new study published in an American Heart Association journal reported a significant correlation between hopelessness and faster progression of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) among 942 middle-age men. The men, who live in a region of Finland with an extremely high rate of male coronary disease, were asked to rate their feeling of failure or having an uncertain future.

Those respondents with the highest scores showed an increased risk of atherosclersosis similar to men who smoked a pack of cigarettes per day.

“Hopelessness is a symptom of depression,” said Susan Everson, chief author of the study and researcher at the Public Health Institute in Berkeley, Calif. “But the effect of hopelessness stands alone when men who tested for depression were factored out.”

That is, even men who are not regarded as depressive may have feelings of futility that can lead to cardiovascular troubles.

“Men need to take this possibility into account,” said Everson.

“More research is needed to make any broad conclusion. But one thing we know now is hopelessness is not a personality trait.

“It is a response to events in life. You can recover hope.”

Everson suggested psychotherapy as one effective treatment. There are also new medications, including one used by Harnisch, that can help.

Doctors are increasingly targeting links between depression and other forms of emotional stress.

“There is no question there is much to be learned about the mental aspects of coronary artery disease and other illnesses,” said Dr. Vincent J. Bufalino, medical director of the Edward Cardiovascular Institute in Naperville, Ill. “We are only in the infancy stage.”


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