How a Men’s Support Group Helped My Depression
Men’s support groups can provide a space free of toxic masculinity where men can be authentic without fear of rejection
A year ago, I never would have imagined that I’d be telling a group of guys I had never met before about my struggles with depression. But there I was, doing exactly that, and it has proven to be extremely beneficial. Not just in terms of coping with my depression, but also in the way that I view masculinity, vulnerability, and how I relate to other men.
I’ve experienced depression intermittently since I was a teenager, with episodes varying in both severity and length. In the midst of one depressive episode that began more than a year ago, I was trying to ease my symptoms through a healthy lifestyle (regular strength training, daily meditation, and loading up on whole plant foods), which did — and still does — provide some degree of relief and stabilization.
I had tried an SSRI antidepressant in the past (fluoxetine, or Prozac, specifically) during a particularly severe episode of depression at 18. I distinctly remember disliking the initial effects, feeling that I had been robbed of my personality and become somewhat zombified. Not wanting to feel numb anymore, I stopped taking them — although I knew it was recommended to give antidepressants some time for the benefits to kick in, as well as to taper off when discontinuing their use. This limited experience of antidepressants made me hesitant to take them again during subsequent episodes. I was also put off by the possible side effects. But what I really felt I needed was a space to talk openly about what I was going through and to be understood.
Of course, therapy was an option, and I’d seen various therapists in the past and knew it could be helpful. But therapy is also expensive. So I started searching for mental health support groups in London, where I live. I found a plethora on Meetup.com; one of the most popular was a men-only group for those suffering from depression and anxiety. The group meets once a month and, as of now, has over 600 members, with around 20 people attending each meeting. I thought I’d give it a go.
It’s allowed me to see that the manifold ways in which I criticize myself are related to antiquated beliefs about manhood, including the idea that, for men, sensitivity is weak and crying is pathetic.
The first few times attended, it was nerve-wracking and difficult to share intimate details about my depression, as well as my relationships. But the more I challenged myself to be honest and vulnerable, the greater the rewards were — I received compassionate responses, rather than the judgment and dismissal I had imagined the other members would react with. Also, after sharing specific aspects of my depression, it was enlightening and relieving to hear that others could completely relate — that they experienced the exact same thoughts. This was a great antidote to the acute feeling of isolation that comes with depression, which partly comes down to difficulty in communicating the experience to others.
Shows of vulnerability are challenging for many men like myself, because they conflict with obsolete norms and values that dictate how we should think, feel, and behave. Some of these “masculine norms” can have negative consequences on psychological well-being. Studies show that men are less likely than women to seek out mental health treatment and are reticent to reveal their depression to others. Experts have identified this as one of the key reasons that the male suicide rate is so high. In the U.K., the male suicide rate is increasing; with suicide being the number one cause of death for men aged 20 to 49, and men accounting for three-quarters of all deaths by suicide. In the United States, there’s a similar worrying pattern, with men dying by suicide 3.5 times more often than women.
A study from the University of Melbourne found that men who strongly identify with being “self-reliant” were significantly more likely to experience thoughts about suicide and self-harm. Self-reliance, which refers to the expectation to solve problems alone instead of seeking help, is part of the Conformity to Masculine Norms Inventory, which encompasses 11 masculine norms identified by psychologists. These are the attributes and values that many men view as being essential to their masculine identity, such as winning, emotional control, risk-taking, and dominance.
Self-reliance is not the only factor driving the male suicide epidemic, however. Unemployment, for example, is a stronger suicide risk factor for men than women, which could relate to some of the other “masculine norms” men attach high value to, such as the primacy of work and the pursuit of status. Another risk factor is alcohol abuse and alcoholism, which is more common among men than women. And drinking can exacerbate depression and increase the risk of impulsive behavior, including suicide.
For many men struggling with their mental health, there are barriers to opening up to friends and family, especially if they want to maintain an image of being self-reliant.
This is where support groups come in. David Wilkins, an associate at Men’s Health Forum (a British charity) and the author of How to Make Mental Health Services Work for Men, reviewed the academic literature relating to male mental health and discovered, among many other things, that “some men prefer to use peer support programs because they are less threatening to traditional masculinities than seeking professional help.” What’s more, research from 2013 at the University of Bristol and the University of Birmingham demonstrated that many men who attend groups for depression and anxiety were “reluctant to discuss problems with their close family and friends” but were comfortable attending groups. More recent research has also confirmed that men like support groups more than women do, with women liking psychotherapy and individual therapy in a clinic to a greater degree than men.
Curious about the advantages of all-male support groups over mixed groups, I got in touch with Frederic Rabinowitz, a professor of psychology at the University of Redlands and an expert on male depression and male-focused psychotherapy. Rabinowitz is also a key author of the American Psychological Association’s first-ever “Guidelines for Psychological Practice With Boys and Men” in 2018. Rabinowitz told me that in mixed-sex support groups, “men tend to compete for the attention of women, rather than develop more awareness about their own concerns,” whereas “often a men’s group allows guys to not feel like they are performing or have to say the right thing.” One male facilitator surveyed in the University of Bristol and Birmingham study who has led both a mixed-sex group and a men’s group said “males in a male-only group showed a more genuine openness to themselves and each other,” while in the mixed group, he recalled there was one man who had depression but would not admit it and became “a jack-the-lad almost type character.”
Personally, part of the reason I leaned toward a male-only group was the desire to discuss (negative) issues relating to masculinity, which might go under the radar or feel inappropriate in a mixed-sex group. In my group, we’ve discussed intense feelings of anger, negative coping strategies like drinking, self-judgement, and shame relating to one’s depression or anxiety, and the difficulty of broaching the topic of our mental health with others.
Rabinowitz explains that the main hurdle in a men’s group is usually around initial trust, but that hurdle can be overcome. “‘Can I be real with you? Are you going to judge me?’ Once men realize that other men are experiencing similar feelings and conflicts, it is a relief,” he says.
“More men are recognizing that they might be able to get support from other men through a group setting,” says Rabinowitz, noting the rise of the ManKind Project, which organizes men’s sharing circles all over the United States, as well as in the U.K. and Ireland.
In the men’s group I go to, the sense of companionship and connection is unique. We understand each other’s struggles (or try our best to understand) and are there to offer and receive support in a way that has, to a certain degree, been absent from our relationships with the other men in our lives.
The group has also helped me to understand how masculinity ties into my mental health. It’s allowed me to see that the manifold ways in which I criticize myself are related to antiquated beliefs about manhood, including the idea that, for men, sensitivity is weak and crying is pathetic. Hearing about others’ experiences of intense anger and irritation has made me reflect on how my own depression manifests in that way, with anger covering up more painful and deeper feelings, such as hurt, sadness, shame, and self-loathing.
Looking back at how I’ve dealt with depression in the past and how I manage it now, I see that it was not “strong” to hide my depression in the belief that it was a soft and unmanly way of dealing with things. My support group has underscored that there’s strength in being forthright and determined to tackle one’s suffering head-on.