“Some men turn away from all this cheap emotion with a kind of heroic despair… But this too can be an error. For if our emotions really die in the desert, our humanity dies with them.”
Despite modern stereotypes associated with talk therapy, this practice was once a predominantly masculine career choice. From the forefathers of modern psychotherapy including Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Carl Rogers and Albert Ellis, the practice was once limited almost exclusively to male practitioners. During the early development of this field, gender inequality was very much alive, just as it is today. However, overtime there has definitely been a shift not only in the practice, but also in the proportion of male and female therapists who facilitate the healing process. This modern day gender imbalance may be both a symptom and a contributing factor in a cascade of problems that significantly impacts the greater population and the male population in particular.
In the world of mental health, the male population represents nearly 80% of deaths by suicide, furthermore men are much less likely to seek treatment than their female counterparts. This shocking statistic can certainly be attributed to gender stereotypes and culturally reinforced gender norms. These factors are only further represented by the minimal number of practicing male psychotherapists. While an ongoing feminist movement continues to strive for gender equality in regards to women’s rights, men continue to suffer the consequences of restrictive gender stereotypes and gender roles. For men, it is often culturally unacceptable to experience, express and discuss certain emotions. Furthermore, it is generally considered faux pas for men to seek help for emotional or behavioral issues. In fact, when men do not adhere to culturally preferred gender roles they can experience social rejection, loss of status, as well as fewer opportunities in work or with potential mates. Instead, men often bottle or repress their emotions leading to destructive behaviors or even suicidal actions.
Recognizing this growing concern, www.mantherapy.org has implemented a humorous campaign in an effort to make psychotherapy more approachable for men. This campaign applies a masculine perspective in examining mental health issues that are more specific to the male population. Despite the clear benefit of this campaign, it will require an ongoing effort by those that truly care about the men in their lives to alleviate the stigma that men often experience when expressing emotion or seeking treatment. If you have concerns for your husband, father, brother or son, ask the tough questions, normalize their experience of sadness, grief or anger and encourage them to take a look at resources like Man Therapy, or even to seek support from a mental health specialist.
Starting a conversation can certainly save lives, however this is only the first step towards ensuring psychological wellness for the men in this world.
In an effort to further address this collective cultural issue, it is important to reflect on how this cultural norm is reinforced. Young men are raised to be tough and are either directly or indirectly taught that expressing emotion is a sign of weakness. Young men are taught to seek out independence rather than relationships and can be stifled in regards to their emotional development. In an effort to address this ongoing cultural issue, we must take a look at how we are raising our male children. Rather than overtly or even covertly reinforcing the suppression of emotion, we must teach all children that it is okay to experience and express emotion. We should encourage children to label their feelings and to talk about why they might be feeling what they are feeling. By enabling our children to develop some degree of emotional intelligence, we can increase a cultural capacity for emotion regulation, distress tolerance and interpersonal relationship. In turn, we can hope that issues effecting the male population including substance abuse, domestic violence and suicidality will be on the decline.
As we deliberately challenge what has become a devastating cultural norm, we can hope to increase the number of male mental health professionals that might help to further address a variety of patriarchal problems that seem to run in every family. Furthermore, by encouraging a cultural shift we can hope that male clients might further seek treatment from a professional whom they are most comfortable working with. It is true that a strong male who is capable of modelling appropriate emotional expression and regulation can very much encourage other men to follow suit.
Various cultures in the history of the world have thought that tears were a sign of masculinity and strength. It was thought that tears reflected that a man lived by a code of values and cared enough to show this by experiencing emotion in various circumstances. It is very true that vulnerability requires courage, it seems that a man who is capable of expressing emotion might be that much more comfortable with their own masculinity. As I reflect on various positive male role models in my own life, I have great admiration for those that have had respect for emotion and were capable of expressing feeling.
Despite this, it is true that the tough guy stereotype dies hard and it might only be through a collective effort that our culture can strive to improve the mental health of the men in this world.
If you or a man in your life is struggling with behavioral or emotional issues, encourage a conversation, validate/normalize their experience and encourage them to seek help from a qualified mental health professional. As with emotion itself, therapy is not a purely feminine domain, therapy can very much take on a no bull shit, tough love perspective that is interwoven with genuine understanding and unconditional positive regard. If you have specific concerns related to men’s mental health, find a therapist that is familiar with and specializes in men’s issues. Finally, check-out some excellent supportive resources such as man therapy or the good men project.
“If a man does not know what port he is steering for, no wind is favorable to him.”