Why Is My Husband Depressed and How Do I Help Him?

What we call depression has likely been around before recorded history and has been recognized for thousands of years.  Aretaeus of Cappadocia (circa 81-138 AD) is credited with the first clinical description of depression.  Hippocrates, the Greek physician of antiquity, was well aware of the disease of depression and called it melancholia.   Whatever we call it, depression is becoming an increasingly significant problem for men and the women who love them.  Women can be frustrated and wonder why is my husband depressed?

It’s often the woman who first recognizes depression in her mate, even when the man doesn’t see it or is resistant to dealing with it.  That was certainly the case for me and my wife.

Getting Through to the Man In Your Life Isn’t Easy

My wife, Carlin, and I walked tentatively into the nicely restored old building to attend the “family weekend.”  Our son had been in treatment for a drug problem and we were there to learn and offer support.  As part of the weekend experience, all the family members were given various questionnaires to fill out.  One was a depression questionnaire.  We dutifully filled it out and my wife scored “high” while I scored “low.”  Carlin talked to a counselor who suggested that she might want to get evaluated for depression when we returned home.

Driving back we talked and it became clear that Carlin had been feeling depressed for some time.  Once home, she saw a doctor, was evaluated, and received treatment.  Her life and mine changed for the better.  It was like she had come out of a fog.  Her joy returned and she became much more fun to be around.

A few months into her treatment, Carlin suggested that I might be depressed as well and wanted me to see her doctor.  I promptly refused.  “I’m not depressed,” I told her.  “If I were I’m sure I’d know it.  I’m a therapist and I treat depression.  I’d certainly recognize it in myself.”  She just gave me a gentle smile.  “OK, it was just a suggestion,” she said.  “Anyway,” I reminded her, “I took the depression quiz at the treatment center and I scored low.”  As far as I was concerned the case was close.

However, there were some disturbing thoughts that would pop into my head.  Although I didn’t see myself as “depressed,” I certainly didn’t feel happy.  It seemed like the stresses of life kept building up until I wanted to scream, “Leave me alone.  I just want some peace!”   I find I was often irritable, angry, preoccupied, and withdrawn.  But that couldn’t be depression, could it?

I convinced myself that my irritability and anger were justified.  “Who wouldn’t be upset with what I have to put up with,” I would call out to anyone who would listen.  “I’m stressed out at work, the kids seem to go out of their way to get on my last remaining nerve, and my wife is going through menopause.”

Carlin received the brunt of my anger, which she fought to deflect. But what did she expect? If she’d just be nicer, more loving, more interested in sex, everything would be okay. It never occurred to me that my constant anger made it nearly impossible for her to be nicer, more loving, or more interested in sex.

More and more often I found I was having fantasies of running away from it all.  I’d see myself getting in my car and just driving into the sunset.  Other times I saw myself with another woman, someone who was kinder and gentler and understood me—someone like Carlin used to be.  Those thoughts excited and scared me.  I knew we couldn’t go on like this, but I had no idea what to do.

Finally, Carlin made the decision for me.  “Look,” she told me directly, “we’re both miserable.  If our marriage is going to survive, you’ve got to see someone.”  Reluctantly, I made an appointment with the doctor she had seen. He did a complete evaluation and I was sure he would say I was a normal guy who had to deal with a lot of stress in his life.  Instead, he told me I was suffering from depression and would benefit from treatment.  I was shocked.  I thanked him and was about to leave when he said something that hit me between the eyes, “You need to be aware, Mr. Diamond, that men often experience depression differently than women, and highly successful and intellectual men, in particular, often deny that they are depressed.”

When I returned home Carlin was anxious to hear the results.  I told her what the doctor had said and she seemed relieved.  I told her I wanted a second opinion.  She blew up.  “You want a second opinion?  I’ll give you a second opinion.  You’re depressed and you need treatment just like I did.  It helped me and it will help you.”  She turned and walked out of the room.

I didn’t want to believe I was depressed.  It just didn’t fit with my view of myself.  And it didn’t fit with what I knew were the symptoms of depression.  My mood wasn’t depressed most of the time.  I hadn’t lost interest in my work or activities I loved.  I slept fine and my energy was OK.  I didn’t feel worthless and I didn’t think of killing myself.

I did decide to see another doctor.  Even though I liked this one much better than the first, she told me essentially the same thing as doctor number one.  She also explained that men who are depressed are often hypersensitive, irritable, and angry.  She gave me a book to read by a world-renowned psychologist, Kay Redfield Jamison.  In her book The Unquiet Mind she described depression in a way that cut to my core.  “You’re irritable and paranoid and humorless and lifeless and critical and demanding, and no reassurance is ever enough.  You’re frightened, and you’re frightening, and ‘you’re not at all like yourself but will be soon,’ but you know you won’t.”

She also told me about the work of Dr. Ronald Kessler at Harvard.  Kessler describes depression in men this way. “When you study depression among children, they don’t talk about being sad, they talk about being angry and irritable,” he said. “Children don’t have the cognitive capacity to make sense of all their feelings. There’s a great similarity between children and men. Men get irritable; women get sad.”

I could no longer deny the truth.  I was dealing with depression.  I agreed to begin therapy and get the help I needed, but had been resisting for so long. I found that my life turned around.  I wasn’t so hypersensitive.  Little things didn’t bother me as much.  I wasn’t so reactive and I felt less irritable.  As Carlin described it, “You used to look at me in a way that chilled me.  Your eyes were narrow and beady.  Now when you look at me I feel your love.  It’s wonderful.”

Things have continued to improve for us.  I know there are millions of other men, and husbands, out there who are depressed, but don’t know it.  I developed a questionnaire that seemed to get at the irritability that is at the core of the kind of depression that many men experience.  If there is anyone who would like to take it you can do so at www.IMSquiz.com.   My hope is that it will allow more men like me to get the help they need.  What do you think?  What has been your experience with a depressed husband?  What have you done that helps?

If you found this post helpful you may enjoy this one on The Irritable Male Syndrome.

Photo Credit:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/library_of_congress/3549662506/sizes/z/in/photostream/

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  1. Debra Trojan says:

    So what exactly did your shrinks do to help resolve your depression?
    I know (from reading your books) that you suggest testosterone
    supplementation but did your shrinks offer you any other remedies?
    Also, did you use any nutritional supplements to resolve your
    depression/IMS? Have you heard of the association between
    depression and magnesium deficiency or depression and
    hypothyroidism? Might they play a part in this?

  2. Debra, Thanks for your comments. As I said, the first step was recognizing that depression was a problem. The second was reaching out for help. Carlin and I were fortunate to find a therapist who looked holistically at our situation. We addressed the issues through personal work on ourselves, including use of medications, but also nutritional and other supplements. We also focused on the interpersonal issues and how our support of each other (or lack of support) contributed to our disconnection and distress. Too often our health-care professionals focus on one dimension or other. They treat depression with medications OR psychotherapy OR alternative healing practices. Rarely do we find someone who uses multi-modality approaches. We need better treatment and prevention, but until then we have to take charge of our own health and find what works best for us.

  3. Chris E says:

    You mentioned a holistic approach to treatment, what sort of treatment in addition to anti-depressant medication does this include?

    • Chris, first I start with an evaluation that looks at who we are in all our significant aspects:
      Hormonal, physical, emotional, interpersonal, sexual, social, and spiritual. Then I look at what’s out of balance. Finally, I develop a plan of interventions to get people on track. Aspects that are often included are: diet, exercise, counseling, hormone balancing, and stress reduction. Medications are used for short-term support, rarely over the long-term.

  4. What suggestions do you have for my husband who has been told by an older brother that he is depressed but by a medical doctor that he isn’t? When I point out his anger, irritability, and critical nature, and suggest getting help, he denies his troubles and claims I only want him to become like me.
    I have been diagnosed with depression about three years ago and have been on medication and have had some counseling.

  5. Sometimes i’m at a loss of what to do to help my husband. He most definitely is in “man-o-pause” what he calls it) knows that he is out of whack, wants to feel better but does none (or very little) to help himself. I cannot do it for him, only he can begin to make it better but despite knowing he is not in a good spot he still refuses to try. What the hell do I do to get him to step up and TRY. I’m as supportive as I can be but he’s not a little boy (just a scared boy inside a mans body) and he needs to do this for him. After finding out of his affair I have made every effort to be a better partner but truthfully i’m getting sick of my doing everything and him not, I mean does he does this to take the focus off of his affair? He is a narcissist and I know the games they play. He won’t even read one single article to help himself- I’m gonna loose it soon if this keeps up. Help!!

    • Chely,

      I know how difficult this can be. Often men get stuck in their negative patterns and can’t see to move forward. Its very difficult on their partners. I’ve found some new ways to work with the women to help them help themselves and find the best way to help their husbands take responsibility and break through to more helpful behavior. If you’d like to explore this in counseling, drop me a note at Jed@Menalive.com (remember to respond to my spamarrest filter if this is the first time you’ve emailed me.)

  6. I think my husband is having a mid life crisis, He lost his father a little over a year ago. He is self employed, and seems to have become a workaholic. He has become very distant and he says he feels a void inside himself. He tells me he loves me, but feels like he doesn’t know what he wants. He says he doesnt want to leave or want me to leave, he just feels empty inside. He seemed ok up until recently on his dads 1 year passing date. Its seems to have just hit out of the blue. I want to know if I can do anything to help him? I have been reading alot on this subject, and it kinda seems like its a wait and see what happens next kind of thing. I am scared of losing him, and I want to help him. Any Advice?