November 24, 2017

The Norway Killer and Depression

Norway KillerIt is making headlines that the terrorist behind the worst national tragedy Norway has seen since World War II is “one of them,” a blond-haired, blue-eyed Christian, making it even more difficult for some to comprehend why he would do such a thing.


Even though the 32-year-old killer is “one of them,” there have been many other labels put on him already to show the rest of the world he is no member of Al Qaeda. He has been called an “Anti-Islam Crusader,” in fact, or “The Timothy McVeigh of Norway.”


Yet he is in fact much like an Al Qaeda terrorist, a violent gang member, the teen Columbine killers, even Hitler.  Not only have they all inflicted great atrocities on their fellow man, capturing the world’s attention by resorting to shocking violence that’s rattled the rest of us into shocked wonder and sorrow. They are also all men who showed signs throughout their lives that their silent depression was manifesting into rage, which then finally ended in violent, attention-seeking action.


I by no means am excusing their despicable actions.  I want to see justice in these isolated, extreme occurrences as much as anyone.  But as a society we can look for the signs and understand young people’s depression before it escalates.


Over a decade ago I read a book called Real Boys : Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood. Written by William Pollack, PhD, it’s touted as a must-read for anyone who lives or works with boys and men (which would be all of us). Pollack’s argument is that we must understand the “myths of boyhood” that are shaping our young boys into men and the crises these societal rules of conduct are causing, starting with depression. And the last resort for depressed boys, and later men, Pollack argues, is violence against themselves or others.


Pollack gives hope that building healthy relationships with trusted adults is one of the best way for boys to feel connected, but they connect much differently than girls do. For one thing, commiseration is one of the most sacred forms of bonding for girls.  Boys learn to stuff their emotions at a very young age; complaints or signs of emotional weakness connote shame and invite ridicule. They are taught to “suck it up, to take it like a man.”


Pollack notes that the tough guy symbols we see in the movies like Tom Cruise or James Dean jump into a car and race away at high speeds when they’re mad, or belly up to a bar to stew alone when they’re sad.  Boys are taught at a very young age to pull their pain, isolation, anger and depression inwards, but it has to be released at some point, just like a simmering pot of water will eventually overflow if left unattended. As parents and teachers we can help them navigate this.


Pollack gives excellent ways to connect with boys and it isn’t by asking them directly how they feel like we would with girls.  Try shooting hoops, or going for a bike ride together, he says.


In fact, of all the books I have read, this one ranks right up there as one of the most important. My discussion here only captures a fraction of it.


Take a look at the boy in your life.  Here are some signs listed in Real Boys to tell if a boy is depressed:

  1. Increased withdrawal from relationships and problems in friendships.
  2. Depleted or impulsive mood.
  3. Increase in intensity or frequency of angry outbursts.
  4. Denial of pain.
  5. Increasingly rigid demands for autonomy or acting out.
  6. Physical symptoms (concentration, sleep, eating or weight disorders)
  7. Inability to cry.
  8. Low self-esteem and harsh self-criticism.
  9. Academic difficulties.
  10. Over-involvement with academic work or sports.
  11. Increased aggressiveness.
  12. Increased silliness (Under a cheerful exterior may reside deep feelings of pain or desperation. Often these boys are the class clowns, or gladly bear the brunt of jokes).
  13. Avoiding the help of others.
  14. New or renewed interest in alcohol or drugs.
  15. Shift in the interest level of sexual encounters.
  16. Increased risk-taking behavior.
  17. Discussion of death, dying or suicide.


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