Three major trending topics on Twitter (other than Van Girl) this past week. Sir Elvis — what a voice, what a star, what a gem of a man. Tetemesha with Safaricom — hey, I don’t have a chance of letting Safaricom rock my world, so I simply look at the tweets and smile. Depression — well, that one trended nationally and internationally. I guess the major reason this issue that women deal with on and off in life is finally a big talking point because this time, we are talking about a man, a known public figure, a well-to-do man, a Hollywood movie star and a person who by every aspect seemed to have it all.
Let’s get beyond the theory for a moment and let me give you my personal observation and encounter with men I have seen go through depression.
The first time I understood that a man, a grown man, an affluent man, could suffer from depression was years ago just as I began my radio career. A colleague of mine went through a relationship breakup and over the period of five days he disintegrated before my very eyes.
Back in the day, at the prime age of 23 when we worked all the odd hours and loved it, we didn’t really notice on the Friday he was still at work when we all left at about 8pm. He had never been the guy to be in the office beyond 3pm given that he started his day at 5am.
On Saturday, he was at his desk, pounding away at his keyboard, smoking one Marlboro after another and speaking in grunts. At some point I do believe I saw tears in his eyes, but I waved the thought away and went on with my day. When spoken to, he mumbled and grunted a lot — No real words. Once again on that day, as we left the office he was still at his desk.
On Sunday, I don’t really know what he did or what he was up to but I do remember another colleague mentioning he had sat at his desk for most of the day. Then came Monday, and I recall very vividly getting a call from my boss asking that he be watched until another colleague arrived and he was taken off-air and taken to hospital. What triggered the concerns of those who were older and wiser than we 23-year-olds was the fact that the music playlist had changed dramatically — every song was sad, slow and morbid and he could barely string a sentence together. When he did speak, he bemoaned what a horrible world we all lived in.
As the days and weeks went by and he took his hospitalisation and medication but also his visits with Dr Okonji very seriously, I learnt to my amazement that heartbreak and heartache for men is real and it can be devastating. That event and the days and months and even years after that pivotal moment when I learnt that depression was real for men as it was for women has never left me. Years later, working here at Radio Africa, I noticed a male colleague of mine acting “strange”.
Firstly, he was in the office way, way too late. I didn’t expect a young man, a newly married young man, with a very gorgeous young wife to be working that late — it made me uneasy. However, what really made the hairs at the back of my neck stand was when I realized he was also coming to work very very early — 6:30am.
My concern went into over-drive when I found out he had come in on Saturday and Sunday as well. I also noticed he made the strangest mistakes on the most basic of things and seemed almost lethargic when it came to discussing work issues. He was breathing and that was about it.
If you know me, you’ll be aware of that fact that I will state with conviction that my gut is seldom wrong and when that feeling in the pit of my stomach won’t go away, I act. I went to a fellow male colleague and asked him to check on this young man. Two days later, I found out that he was going through a very rough patch in his marriage and indeed he was unwell. He got the help he needed, but I know the breakdown of his marriage and the subsequent depression changed him fundamentally.
Here’s what I know for sure about the issue of depression among men and especially in a Kenyan setting (I can’t hazard a guess about all black men). Apart from anything else, if men confess a bout of depression to their wives or partners, they are not always guaranteed automatic sympathy — in fact they may elicit outright hostility. We must find a way to address this.
Men are still expected to be ‘strong’ and to show what can be perceived as weakness can not only be a shock to themselves, but to their wives. I have been told by several men that a not uncommon response from women is ‘I don’t need another child to look after. Sort yourself out.’
A few things you and I need to be acutely aware of: One in five men who lose their job will suffer six months' depression.
Relationships are as tough on men as they are for women. Men just pretend to handle it better. If divorce is the outcome of a marriage gone bad, depression sets in for men as well as women. However, statistics show that women cope with separation far better than men.
The very physical and straightforward love and friendship that exists among women is much more subtle among men, reduced often to a back slap and a handshake. Men often just don’t have the practice, or the mental equipment to unburden themselves emotionally to another person.
Another less obvious trigger for men’s unhappiness is having an unhappy woman as a partner. There are still some women, whether they acknowledge it or not, who expect that men should be able to make them happy (the myth of a knight in shining Mercedes and a castle in Runda).
So if a woman is not happy and can’t work out why, it’s quite easy to attach blame to the man in her life. And thus many men if asked to be speak freely admit to feeling under-appreciated.
Here’s what we need to consider to counter the illness that is depression in our men. Let’s try to be a little more attentive to how they are. It’s a step.
However for all of us, we shouldn’t expect to be happy all the time. Newsflash — unhappiness is a normal part of the human condition, and to expect otherwise is a source of unhappiness itself.
Women have it tough. Men have it tough, too. The way we’re going to get through this is together — by looking out for one another and not assuming that just because he’s funny, he’s famous, he’s rich, or that he has it all means he can’t be depressed or worst still, depressed and suicidal.