A few years back, my dad was headed toward the end of his professional life. A construction guy, he’d always been the kind of boss young labourers called The Duke of Bloody Wellington for his attention to the rules. Even in the site-shed, he used to make us kids wear hard-hats. The brickies and the carpenters feared his set-square and the sparkies knew that on Trevor’s site, you couldn’t take a shortcut.
Every project dad started was finished on budget and on time; they unfolded in the way his spread-sheets foretold. Dad’s keystrokes were the first word and final authority on a job and he took this sense of planning to every facet of his life.
I knew then he was working on a retirement file. He would approach the end of his duties with the same precision he’d overseen their execution. He’d planned his finale in Excel.
As it turned out, reality didn’t tally with his budget. When they brought Dad’s farewell party forward five years, it just didn’t compute.
Dad looked for work. Dad fixed the house. Dad fixed the neighbour’s house and then, when they told him they didn’t really fancy ten metres of new decking, he took up fly-fishing. None of it made up for the lack of a building site.
In the face of a devastated spreadsheet and a life unlikely to break new ground again, he became so despondent he even gave up on his subscription to Horse Racing Australia. So, my mother sent him to the doctor.
I don’t need to tell you what happened next. Dad was diagnosed with depression.
It happened to Serious Craig, too; a guy at my weekly poker night. His mother got ill with something unpronounceable and Craig had to give up his dream gig as a sound engineer for stable work and after-hours nursing duties. “Bummer,” said one of the guys at the card night. “Major Depressive Disorder,” said the GP who put Serious on pills.
They offered my Dad pills, too and suggested a yoga class; solutions about as appropriate as a mankini at a funeral. My dad is a man’s man and I can imagine him finding peace within the Sun Salute as easily as I can see Hulk Hogan in a Balenciaga tutu. “Depression” just didn’t suit him.
“I’m hardly depressed,” he told me. “I just have the shits.”
These days, though, men aren’t allowed to just have the shits.
A bloke can’t be crapped off, he has Anxiety Disorder. Now, if he is bruised by one of life’s monumental kicks, he has Depressive Illness.
Psychiatry’s most influential document, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) makes sure he’s depressed and not just reacting appropriately to some terrible shit.
In the terms of the DSM, it doesn’t matter if you’ve just been divorced, fired from your job or diagnosed with terminal cancer. The only medical exception to a diagnosis of depression is bereavement. If you’re blue and not recently widowed, the chances that you’ll be diagnosed as mentally ill are great.
It’s true, of course, that there are mentally ill blokes who need all the intervention an army of shrinks and big Pharma can provide. But, it’s also right that there are many who are simply not sick. They just have the shits. My dad didn’t need his bad mood explained by the doctors. What he needed, as it turned out, was a new angle grinder.
If you take a look at the numbers, it seems blokes are a sorry lot. The Bureau of Statistics tells us that one in every five Australians will suffer depressive illness. The number of scripts for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (pills like Prozac and Zoloft) is locally upward of 12 million per year. The World Health Organisation predicts that depression, particularly of the male tint, will be a major global concern of the future. Lobby groups and politicians eat this stuff up with a big medicine spoon.
The mental health of men has become a bipartisan political favourite with leaders calling for “discussion” and “healing” and other forms of tutu.
Again, there are guys who need help. But there are many enduring the sundry tortures of drugs, yoga and awful books with misty mountains on the cover at their peril. In the case of my father, of Serious Craig and my mate Pete who turned out to have a dodgy thyroid instead of the Acute Anxiety his doctor diagnosed, this Mental Health stuff did more harm than good.
I’m not on my own in arguing for a conservative approach to the diagnosis of mental illness in men. There are people with an alphabet soup of letters after their names asking for the same. Two of them, Doctors Horwitz and Wakefield, wrote a book about it a year or two ago. In The Loss of Sadness, these scholars argued that feeling like crap from time-to-time is “neither abnormal nor inappropriate” and that, very often, everyday sadness was forgotten.
This is a more radical argument than you might think. The DSM has some very narrow criteria for depression. You can hear it in the patter of your GP: Do you find it difficult to focus? Do you ever feel tired? Do you ever think about death? The average bummed-out chap will hear this checklist and say of course I effing do.
As media and medicine often has it, an entire generation of men is clinically depressed or, in some other way, diagnosable. You’re not bored; you have “adult” ADHD. One too many macchiatos is Caffeine Induced Sleep Disorder and in the new version of the DSM due for publication in 2013, it has been widely reported that overuse of your Smartphone will emerge as a treatable illness. I don’t know what they’ll call it. Post-traumatic text disorder perhaps.
There are no biological markers for these disorders any more than there is a blood test or a brain scan for the blues. This is not to say, of course, that depression does not exist. It’s just that when they can’t see it on a slide, doctors tend to diagnose it and medicate it with the rationale that it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Perhaps it isn’t. It’s quite possible over-diagnosis of depression compromises the study of this devastating illness. And, back in the land of the everyday, it can make ordinary blokes feel far more desperate than they need. As Serious had it, “Great. Now, on top of everything else, I’m depressed and on Zoloft.”
It’s okay for a gent to have a bad mood without a medical term appended to it like a big pink ribbon. It’s not okay for a generation of men to be medicated to the back teeth.
I watched my dad’s bad mood spiral from something ordinary and appropriate into a full-blown drama in the doctor’s office. Fortunately, dad never got his wisdom from the side of a Zoloft box. He knew he just had the shits. Over the years, he worked them away with his angle-grinder.
This was a piece written for the FHM lads