Recent University of Michigan research suggests men are more vulnerable to long-term depression than women, citing a decreased willingness in men to talk about mental health issues.
Using data collected by the Institute of Social Research on nearly 4,000 nationally representative participants from 1986 to 2011, Dr. Shervin Assari, psychiatric research investigator and lead author of the recent study, found differences between long-term stress and subsequent depression in males and females. This research, Assari said, could have implications regarding the way mental health is stigmatized between the two genders.
Assari said his interest in studying how groups differ in vulnerability and their resilience to stress led him to pursue the research. He said he believes exposure to stress helps build resilience to it, but this build-up occurs differently in people of different backgrounds, genders and social groups.
“Historically, most of the research looked at or has tried to explain group differences in health through differential exposures, meaning that if women are more depressed, it’s because they get more stress,” Assari said. “If you get a lot of exposure, you build resilience. It’s not women who might be more susceptible to the effect of stress on depression; it might be men who have high levels of stress and be most vulnerable to the effect of it.”
Daphne Watkins, associate professor of Social Work, said oftentimes gendered differences based on “gendered stressors” affect the availability of mental health information for men.
“I find that the majority of research on stress and health has focused primarily on women,” Watkins said. “I think it does negate the importance of understanding the ways in which stress differentially affects men’s health, especially vulnerable groups of men and boys.”
Assari’s study found over time women adapt to stress in ways men do not. He said women are better able to manage their stress, while he also noted that men experience depression at higher rates due to a number of factors inclduing inability to deal with stress, while women are exposed to higher levels of stress at a younger age than men, levels of depression in men are delayed. Yet women are more prepared than men to manage their stress and depressive symptoms, and are more likely to seek help.
“The literature says yes, women get more stress,” Assari said. “But, from the other side, we know that women get used to stress in the way that they can mobilize the psycho-social resources. They can better communicate or talk about their emotions. They don’t stigmatize using health care … As men, we think that’s not appropriate, that reduces our power or control over life. We don’t talk about our emotions and our difficulties.”
Watkins said long-term stress can lead to a range of health outcomes, such as more severe problems with mental health, susceptibility to diseases and risk of chronic conditions.
“Stress can be detrimental to everyone’s health and well-being,” Watkins said. “Its effects on health are evident, directly through more physiological pathways, but also indirectly through health behaviors and practices.”
In particular, Assari said hegemonic masculinity — a traditional belief among men that identifies being a man as needing to show power and dominance can lead to showing higher vulnerability to higher effects of stress because they do not seek professional help.
Expressing a similar sentiment, Watkins said men usually abide by the general social codes set for their gender so as to avoid the stress associated with doing otherwise.
“Because men tend to adhere to those more traditional definitions of manhood they won’t go and seek physical health care or mental health care because, despite all these risks, they’re saying, ‘I’m the man, and because I’m a man, I can handle that,’ ” Watkins said.
Jill Becker, professor of Psychology and Psychiatry, who studies sex differences in motivation and drug abuse primarily using rat models, said the study was a needed contribution to the field. Becker said when subjecting the rats to restraint stressors repeatedly for a long period of time, female rats show better capabilities for learning, while male rats do worse following repeated restraint stress. Becker said this concept could be applicable to human males as well.
“The ability to use these large data sets to begin to answer questions about where are there sex and gender differences in how stress is affecting us makes this a very important article,” Becker said.
For Assari, this research ultimately suggests men are less likely to take care of their emotional problems, an issue that could have adverse effects on mental and physical health in their future.
“We need to work with this gender identity, help them to seek care, reduce stigma associated with mental health care organizations and (increase) communication about emotion among men,” Assari said.