Men, Depression, And Why You Should Never ‘Just Suck It Up’
Towards the end of my third year of uni, I found myself somewhere I never thought I’d be: sitting in a counsellor’s office, talking about my feelings.
It had been a long time coming. Over the past six months, between classes, assignments and work, I’d barely had enough time to sleep, let alone exercise or relax. I was on the very edge of physical and emotional exhaustion, a zombie in pyjama bottoms. One day, I finally sought help.
Only help wasn’t to be so forthcoming. After listening to me talk about deeply personal things – including my recent thoughts of suicide – the counsellor told me nothing was wrong with me. Just a little stressed, she said. She knew other students who were “much worse off”. I was welcome to make further appointments if I really felt they were necessary.
Walking out of her office, I felt ashamed. I’d spilled my guts to this person, told them things I’d never told anyone, and they’d dismissed it as a case of the boo-hoos. My fears of appearing weak and melodramatic had come true when I least expected, and I resolved not to seek any more counselling.
But thank God I did. The next therapist I saw was vastly more sympathetic. Our regular sessions pulled me back from the brink of collapse, and set me on course to recovery.
Why did I wait so long before asking for help, when help was so obviously needed? What does the case of the disinterested counsellor say about getting help? And why is the “stressed-out student” fast becoming a national icon?
Being a young person in Australia comes with a lot of demands, both from institutions and from society in general.
Study hard. Don’t be a burden on your parents. Remember that your degree is worthless and you’ll never own a house. And don’t forget to hit the gym after Instagramming pictures of your homemade high-protein casserole.
Unsurprisingly, recent surveys have found that stress and anxiety are at epidemic levels among Australian tertiary students.
Vijaya Manicavasagar, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Black Dog Institute, thinks this high-pressure environment drives students to compare themselves with their peers. But the distortive power of social media can make such comparisons devastating.
“Social media can’t explain the full situation of how a person got to where they are,” Manicavasagar tells The Cusp. “They might have made a lot of sacrifices, there might have been a lot of heartbreak along the way, but that’s not necessarily reported in social media.
“You see the gloss, you see the tip of the iceberg, you see the good stuff,” she says.
This need to appear to have one’s life together, to be managing and achieving, is so widespread among students that Stanford University coined their own term for it: “duck syndrome”. This is when a person appears to be doing fine on the surface, but is actually struggling just to maintain that facade of normality (akin to a duck with its legs working frantically, but invisibly, below the waterline).
Whatever you want to call it, it seems suffering while smiling has become a very popular art-form. So, why are people so afraid of asking for help?
Around three million Australians live with depression or anxiety, but as few as one in three of those people will ever seek help.
Personally, I found the fear of being seen as weak to be a huge roadblock. Getting counselling, I thought, would make me a victim, a dependent, just another millennial snowflake.
Dr Stephen Carbone, head of research and evaluation at Beyond Blue, says this attitude is a fairly common form of “self-stigma”. Talking to The Cusp, he says that negative attitudes around depression are easily internalised. This can include a perception of depression sufferers as lazy, soft, or just needing to “tough it out”.
But such characterisations are unfair and inaccurate, and Dr Carbone urges sufferers to treat psychological problems like they would any other health issue.
“It’s easy to think, ‘I’m just weak, I just need to pull myself up, I just need to get on top of this’, he says. “But depression and anxiety are real. They’re health conditions that can affect anyone. It’s no one’s fault, and the best thing to do is just to go and get the help you need.”
Even if you’re past the point of embarrassment, the idea of finding help can still be daunting. Manicavasagar says that a good first step might be to reach out to a friend or loved one, someone to help you start the process. “It’s really helpful to have someone on your side,” she says.
She also says that my experience with the unhelpful counsellor, while not unheard of, is hardly par for the course. Nevertheless, not every counsellor is going to be a great match for the person seeing them.
“Sometimes it’s a little bit trial-and-error, unfortunately. So, I think people shouldn’t be afraid to change therapists. If they feel like they don’t quite hit it off, then they probably need to find someone that they feel more comfortable with,” she says.
Getting help might not always be a silver bullet. But with today’s challenges – and social media putting our personal lives up on scoreboards – there’s absolutely no shame in looking for a leg-up.
I don’t want to prescribe treatment to anyone, but in my experience, trying to wait out mental health issues only delays recovery. If you’re in pain, just know that there is help, and that your struggle is valid.
No matter who tells you it isn’t.
Joel Svensson is a Canberra-based writer originally from Melbourne. He’s written more latté-fuelled stories about first-world problems than he cares to admit, and can be found coping with misleading hashtags at @le0jay.