Disclaimer: I’m a fan of Mad Men. I can relate to some of the struggles of Don Draper. I’m not a physician. I’m not a psychologist. I’m the co-founder of the Movember Foundation. I’ve dedicated the last 12 years of my life to improving men’s health. The Movember Foundation’s goal is that men live happier, healthier, longer lives.
Don Draper is the ultimate 1960s ad man from AMC’s Mad Men, which came to end today. Don is a man with perfect style. He is supremely confident, cool under pressure, and admired by everyone for his creative genius and ability to close a deal.
Don’s ambition and drive overcame a traumatic childhood and a less than honorable tour of Korea with the US Army. At the height of Don’s success he had everything - a beautiful wife and children, a Manhattan apartment and the ultimate job, a successful leader of his own agency and a legend of his industry. Don was a perfectionist, which seemed to be driven more by what he thought other people expected of him than his own priorities. With that, people came to expect perfection from Don. He was “the man.”
Don, however, was also a man whose emotions were in lockdown, as he obsessed with being successful and in control. As seen in the show’s opening credits, after his success came his spiraling downfall, triggered by a series of events: the loss of his second marriage to Megan, a daughter who disowned him, the decline of his agency, and eventually, the loss of his job.
As men often do, Don masked his depressed state through his many vices, excessive drinking, smoking and womanizing. Like too many middle-aged men today, Don didn’t have any meaningful social connections because he put work and other things ahead of staying connected. With no one to go to, Don isolated himself, which led him to a very dark place.
For all the progress we have made since the 1960s, the idea of what it means to be a man is stuck in that era. The expectation is that men must be a fighter and a winner, a provider and a protector, must be in control at all times and never show vulnerability. If you break any of these rules, accordingly, you’re not a real man.
The power of these kinds of perceived expectations of others can have a very damaging effect on men, particularly when you believe you have fallen short. Don’s self-esteem was perilously dependent on maintaining an impossibly consistent level of success. As we saw with Don, in situations where men feel they have failed, and we all do at some point, we can spiral out of control into depression and even become suicidal.
The situation is compounded by male stereotypes that existed in Don’s world, and still exist in the modern man today. Men, to their detriment, often find it hard to talk about the challenges in their life. This is especially true when they are not coping.
Don’s situation, like so many others, created a compounding effect with seemingly irreversible momentum. This was the combined result of a series of challenging life moments, a sense of failure and shame, excessive alcohol consumption and isolation.
With 3 out of 4 deaths by suicide being men and on average 87 men taking their life each day in the US, we have a crisis on our hands. According to Movember Foundation funded research, men between 35 and 54 are at the greatest risk of isolation and have a higher risk of mental health problems, even suicide. Put simply, we need to act.
So what can the modern man learn from Don Draper?
- Stay connected, make time for your friends, and spend time doing what you enjoy. Bro time is actually really good for your health!
- Work hard but not at the expense of quality time with your friends and family.
- If you know someone who is struggling or isolating himself, make an effort to connect and spend time with him.
- When you experience tough life events, be it a job loss, relationship breakdown, death, or even a positive change, such as becoming a new father, stay connected to those around you. Check in, don’t check out!
- Don Draper didn’t treat women well, he manipulated relationships to fuel his ego and mask his insecurities. If we can breakdown the negative gender stereotypes about men, success, and being in control, then this will have a positive impact on women as well.
- 50% of guys don’t have a good idea of the symptoms of depression*. We all go through tough times when we feel down, but depression is more than this and can result in persistent low mood, increased anger or irritability for weeks or months. Many men wait too long before seeking help for depression. The sooner you seek support, the sooner you can be on the way to recovery.
- Dress with style
- Don’t smoke!
“Is that what you want, or is that what people expect of you?” Don Draper, Season four, The Good News
*based on research taken from The Movember Man files study, conducted in Australia in 2014 and funded by the Movember Foundation.