It’s not going to surprise anyone to hear that there is a stigma against men seeking help for mental health reasons. A large portion of the guys who come to see me have been referred over a course of many weeks or months (sometimes years) from their female partners, friends, and sometimes mothers.
My cheeky answer: Why shouldn’t there be?
This whole idea of the “man box” and toxic masculinity focuses on how we are all socially constructed to react and expect each other to behave in certain ways in order to conform with our assigned gender at birth. There are a bunch of feminine and masculine traits that the people who love us–as well as people who don’t even know us–are constantly reinforcing since before we were even born.
Maybe we’re allowed to stray a little bit in the early years. Boys are allowed to cry a little bit, girls are allowed to be self-directed and in charge—but somewhere before middle school the Gender Police come out in full force.
The therapist Olga Silverstein talks about how boys and girls are ‘halved’ at this point: girls are encouraged to be connected and interpersonal but discouraged from taking leadership roles and being independent. Boys, on the other hand, get the opposite—we hold up their attempts at being in charge and suss out all the feelings (other than anger, of course.)
None of us get to have a full expression of our humanness.
Add five, ten, fifteen, fifty years and why should we question that a man is resistant to talking about his ‘feelings’ with a ‘therapist’ and possibly told he has ‘depression’ or ‘mental health issues.’ We’re pulling the rug out from under him—and then we’re blaming him that the rug is there at all!
We create this society together. And we keep it going together.
See the Whole Picture
Something we all—including us therapists—need to take into consideration is what we are setting the guy who does wander into a therapy office up for.
Sure, I’d like us all to be more open, more expressive, more believing that vulnerability is a strength and not a weakness.
But we have pesky society again who doesn’t always listen never listens to me.
When working with guys, adolescents or adults, we need to be making sure we’re talking about their environment and not just what’s in their psyches. I was giving a talk at the National Association of Social Workers about how to better engage fathers and father figures in to the work we do with families and a grandfather let me know how much he wants his grandson to be more emotionally expressive but worries at the risk that that puts him in when he’s in school and in the world. This was hard for many of the therapists in the room to take in—we just want to focus on the individual letting go of the suffering of that ‘man box’, but there is more to it than just that. It’s not so simple. It’s another good reason why a guy might hesitate to seek therapy.
It’s Not Just MENTAL Health
Some well-intentioned people have been trying to reframe counseling and mental health concerns as something we should take just as seriously as we do physical health concerns. I agree. I’m fine with that. But the idea that that would reduce stigma for men doesn’t hold up.
Men might be going to their GPs more than they are seeking out social workers and psychiatrists, but they’re not running into those offices either!
In Brooklyn, for about a decade, we had a Take Your Man to the Doctor campaign. Again, the emphasis falls on women to help men help themselves.
Wellness, health, taking care of ourselves still falls along gender lines. We’re still asking women to bear the emotional labor of helping us get out of our own way of harming ourselves.
Yes, there’s a stigma about your 35-year-old, cis-gendered, boyfriend/son/husband/brother/friend going to a therapist.
Yes, encourage him to do so.
But for those of us who have influence on a younger generation (and that’s all of us not just parents, teachers, and social workers) children are looking at all of us and how we treat each other (yes, I’m looking at politicians, artists, and celebrities too).
The best way you can work toward breaking down that stigma is to openly enter mental health treatment yourself. You don’t need to tell anyone what you talk about—but you’ll be potentially saving lots of young boys who are at risk of dying by suicide (men die by suicide 4 times more often than women) by not hiding that you’re taking care of yourself by getting your own therapy.
Related, here on GMP:
Justin Lioi explains Masculine Default Man Setting and how to move out of the Man Box.
Read more by Justin Lioi on his blog.
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