Sadly, in 2014 (2016) mental health stigma still exists. This is the idea that somehow asking for help or talking about feelings is weak or embarrassing- and this is applied to men much more than women. But if you can talk to your physician about hemorrhoids or erectile problems, why couldn’t you talk to a therapist about hating your job or your feeling sad or angry? It would seem to me that these things are not much different at all. But again, this perception is still there, so men in particular often choose to run from problems, rather than face them and try to make them better.
In my work I’ve realized that asking for help or participating in therapy, in actuality, is a really manly thing to do. I use the term “manly” with respect to traditional masculine stereotypes, which we are all familiar with. I have listed 5 here as they relate to asking for help or seeking therapy, reframing each in a way that I believe is more realistic and certainly more healthy.
1) Asking for help (and ESPECIALLY going to therapy) is weak. Actually, asking for help is REALLY hard to do- for men and women. And since they’re not often used to it, I would argue that it’s even harder for men. So acknowledging a problem or being willing to explore the possibility of one suggests great strength. Men in particular might feel like they’re putting a lot on the line by asking for help. They risk feeling awkward, receiving a negative reaction from others, or feeling embarrassed. In this case, asking for help is much stronger than not- especially if the reason not to is rooted in fear. Didn’t Tony Soprano see a therapist for a long time? Granted, he saw a psychiatrist, and very few today provide actual therapy, but focus their efforts on prescribing medications. And TV therapists rarely represent actual professionals. But that’s all beside the point.
2) Talking about feelings is for women. Yes, there are a number of differences between men and women; however, masculinity and femininity are social constructs and are not physiologically programmed traits. In America this stereotype is something that men have been taught and have come to believe- yet worldwide, studies show that seeking support and participating in therapy is beneficial for men and women alike. In fact, I have worked with some of the most traditionally masculine men I have ever met. Of course most were court-mandated to attend therapy because they were on parole or probation, but the vast majority let their guard down eventually and said how much they either “didn’t mind” coming to therapy or how much it truly helped them.
3) Men should be able to handle their problems by themselves. I don’t believe that having more testosterone or a penis makes men better problem solvers (in fact, some would argue that the opposite is true) or better able to handle stress than those who do not. Again, this stereotype is societal- at least here in the US. Men, on average, have not been shown to handle stress more effectively than women, so even men need help sometimes. I would actually argue that men, on average, have a greater need to ask for help and thus could benefit more from participating in therapy. Often, men are less likely to confide in others than women, so they are likely to have more bottled-up stress or emotions than women. Given this, they may be more likely to relieve stress in unhealthy ways, like irritability, anger, aggression, or self-destructive behaviors.
4) Men don’t need therapy. That’s why we have bars. There is nothing wrong with socializing- and it’s actually a healthy, necessary thing to do. And if you’re of age, there is nothing wrong with going to bars. But when you get into the habit of going every night, drinking and driving, or drinking to mask uncomfortable feelings, you’re headed for trouble. Least of all, this is an unhealthy existence and you will probably be unhappy in the long run. Not to mention that alcoholism is a progressive disease, so you may be “functional” now, but at some point something will give. You also risk poor health, work or family problems, legal issues, and of course death. True social drinking is fine if that’s what you like to do, but when you’re abusing alcohol or other drugs, you’re running away from problems or hiding from reality as you know it. Aren’t “real men” supposed to have the courage to face problems head on? If so, it would make sense for real men to seek therapy, rather than hide behind a beer can. And my last point here, the bartender or your drinking buddies may be great listeners, but most likely they are not mental health professionals with years of training or experience. You may find your conversations with them therapeutic in a sense, but change is unlikely, and you might just be making your problems worse.
5) Asking for help (and especially going to therapy) is gay. Here, gay seems to be synonymous with feminine. And of course femininity (to some) = passivity, sensitivity, gentleness, and other non-masculine characteristics. First of all, we know that gay = feminine is a stereotype. This has become more evident through the years as more gay men have come out, and many defying stereotypes. The NFL draft happened last week, and if you didn’t know, pretty much every man in America agrees that football is the most masculine of sports. This year, Michael Sam became the first-ever openly gay man drafted into the NFL. He presents as confident, comfortable with himself- and he’s a super tough defensive player to boot, so it came as a shock to most people when he announced that he is gay. To me, him coming out in the traditionally ultra-homophobic world of football- before he was even drafted (which was risky, to say the least)- and being able to talk about himself so openly is beyond brave. He embodies a lot of qualities that are more stereotypically masculine, like self-confidence, toughness, and being comfortable in your own skin. This certainly appears to be in contrast to more traditionally masculine types like former Ole Miss guard, Marshall Henderson, who took to Twitter to write some inflammatory comments about Michael Sam after the draft. Of course, he backtracked later, saying he was helping a psychology student friend (who is gay) with a study (LOL..). Surely facing people (voluntarily), telling them who you really are, and asking for their support (with millions of dollars on the line) is WAY more manly than hiding behind a computer and writing nasty things about people …and then not ‘fessing up when you get called on it. So here we can see that stereotypes are not all that they seem. Asking for help, and absolutely seeking therapy, is not “gay” at all. It means you’re comfortable, confident, tough- and EXTREMELY masculine.
I know I could think of more reasons to support my case, but the point is that no one- of any gender or degree of masculinity or femininity, needs to suffer, stuffing feelings away or acting out in passive-aggressive or reckless ways. Talking to another person, especially a trained professional, has proven to be an effective way to deal with problem situations and to grow in positive ways. Sometimes you have to have the courage to face your fears or problems head on, and recognize that you can’t do everything on your own- and to me, that embodies what being a “real man” is supposed to be about.
So if you believe talking about something might be helpful, talk to a friend, partner, or family member- or call a psychologist and arrange a consultation. It takes guts, but you’ll be glad you did. For a referral, click here or here.
For more information on this subject, there is a series of videos on Youtube called “Man Therapy”, which is actually a suicide prevention initiative. Though the videos are not entirely serious, they show just what I have been talking about.
Dr. Jesse Matthews is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Chester Springs, PA. He helps people of all ages to address many kinds of issues. You can view his Psychology Today profile here. For any questions or to arrange an appointment, please contact him at 610-482-4496 or firstname.lastname@example.org.