Helping male partners cope with depression

The emotional and mental well-being of male partners of breast cancer survivors are often overlooked. Dr Inge Kriel, an oncology care physician, highlights the symptoms of male depression and how it is treated.

Life-changing experience

Breast cancer is a life-changing experience. Patients may experience the five stages of grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. The actual diagnosis and ensuing treatment are often a whirlwind of doctors’ appointments. As a result, there is little time to process the diagnosis of cancer.

So, it is often in the period of survivorship that patients have the first opportunity to confront their fears and concerns. Depression and anxiety may follow due to the full weight of the cancer experience becoming real.

Hence, oncology care physicians are trained to assess for symptoms of depression and anxiety in breast cancer survivors, and manage these conditions to improve quality of life.

Well-being of male partners overlooked

Unfortunately, the emotional and mental well-being of male partners of survivors are often overlooked. All the attention and focus is placed on the breast cancer survivor and her emotional needs. Yet, we neglect to check in on the partner to make sure that he is coping.

Furthermore, many survivors tell me that they’re coping and working through the trauma, but they are concerned about their partners, who don’t seem to be able to come to terms with the diagnosis.

Male depression

Male depression often has a different presentation to that of typical depressive symptoms. It may be difficult to diagnose as the usual symptoms of tearfulness, poor self-esteem and self-blame may not always be present. Instead, male depression often presents with anger, irritability, withdrawal and risk-taking behaviours (increased alcohol consumption, drug use, affairs, etc.)

Also, men are often reticent to share their feelings. In addition, societal expectations that men must be strong and cannot show emotion, or ask for help contributes to suppression of emotions and unwillingness to seek medical help.

The anger and irritability may be directed towards the partner (survivor), who has her own emotions to deal with. This can place immense stress on the relationship, if the underlying cause is not identified and managed.

Impact on the survivor

The survivor depends on her support structure – in which her partner plays a pivotal role – in order to thrive after her breast cancer diagnosis. If we don’t do enough to help male partners deal with their own emotional trauma, then there is a risk that the survivor will lose that vitally important support system. And, a perfectly good, healthy relationship could also possibly be sacrificed.

Proactive approach

Therefore, more needs to be done to support male partners of breast cancer survivors. There needs to be a pro-active approach in screening for symptoms of male depression. This  will help to manage this condition before it negatively affects not only the individual, but the relationship as well.

Treatment for male depression

Male depression can be managed with anti-depressants and psychotherapy. Though depression in men may be particularly difficult to manage because their symptoms may not respond to conventional anti-depressants at the usual dosages.

Individualised treatment is therefore key to effectively address the symptoms. Complementary therapies, such as sophrology, yoga and meditation, may also be beneficial.

Moreover, support groups where male partners can share their experiences can encourage men to talk openly and honestly about their feelings.

So, ask for help

If you suspect that you or your partner are suffering from depression, ask your doctor for help. He/she will be able to advise you on the different treatment options available and direct you to support groups where you and your partner can share your feelings in a safe space.

Dr Inge Kriel is an oncology care physician practicing at TimRon Health and Wellness Centre in Fourways, JHB.


Dr Inge Kriel is an oncology care physician practicing at TimRon Health and Wellness Centre in Fourways, JHB.

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