[Listen to an audio version of this blog HERE.]
"It's great that therapy has helped you," he said. "I just don't think I need it."
"Have you ever tried?" I asked.
"No, I just know it won't help me," he answered.
I wanted to roll my eyes but I didn't because, as my therapist has told me, visibly rolling one's eyes is rude, and sure to incite negative feelings. It might also put me in a position of danger on a date, since I didn't really know this man, and men sometimes have short fuses and anyway, I rolled my eyes internally instead.
He was not the first man who wanted to know all about my experience in therapy but was resistant to seeking help himself. There was the man who decided, after asking me extensive questions about my own experience, that I needed therapy more than he did. Therefore, he reasoned, it wouldn't pertain to him. There was the man who went to couples counseling with his ex, only to grow frustrated and give up, severing their relationship. This did not bode well for ours, by the way. And finally, there was the man who asserted, boldly and without duress, that therapy simply made him too uncomfortable and brought up unnecessary baggage. I tried to point out that being uncomfortable is the entire point of therapy, but I digress.
There will be a few readers who feel the need to point out that #notallmen are resistant to therapy. I recently met a man who is actively seeking the help of a therapist, so I have to agree, #notallmen. But I am interested in why there seems to be such clear divide among men and women. This study found that men are less likely than women to seek help for psychological issues, and men demonstrate significant differences when they do go to therapy, such as preferring support groups to one-on-one sessions. The study also found that men are more likely to focus on action rather than emotional sharing. For instance, after the death of a loved one, a man is more likely to write, take up a new hobby, or keep busy in some way rather than talk about their feelings. Understanding the different ways men and women process emotions, whether due to socialization or some other factor, is pivotal in helping men through therapy. This study brings up an important subject in that it explores the different ways men and women behave in therapy.
But what about the men who refuse to go in the first place?
Only one third of adults seeking therapy are men, and there has been substantial effort in figuring out why. One barrier dates back to the inception of psychotherapy, which was created by men to treat women, so it not only caters to women's disposition but underscores men as the "fixers." Men, we are told, are not supposed to have mental health problems. Unfortunately, they do. Men are three times as likely to die by suicide as women and nearly 1 in 10 men experience depression or anxiety. In addition, about 6 of every 10 men experience at least one trauma in their lives; men are more likely to experience trauma related to accidents, physical assault, combat, disaster, or to witness death or injury and experience the effects of PTSD. Men are also two times more likely to binge drink than women: and have higher rates of alcohol-related deaths and hospitalizations. Forty-nine percent of men feel more depressed than they admit to the people in their life. And, while women are more prone to talking about how they feel, men are much less likely to voice their struggles.
So, again, why don't men seek treatment?
The answer, unfortunately, is not altogether clear. Partly, because men want to seem strong and alpha and in control. Going to therapy or having a mental health issue can be seen as "weak," I think we all know this. Even as a woman, it feels weak to admit that I struggle sometimes with my mental health. We can't see it, thus is must not be a problem, right? (wrong). According to one man, finding a therapist who can relate and who also accepts the right insurance can feel unnecessarily complicated. And he's not wrong, there are so many barriers to good therapy, the cost of therapy is only one. I've "broken up" with many therapists in my day, either because they weren't helpful or talked too much or I didn't feel understood. The process of finding the right fit can, in itself, feel daunting.
Zac Seidler, a psychology Ph.D. candidate at the University of Sydney in Australia, explained in an article in the journal Australian Psychologist that to help men in therapy, "it would be more appropriate to use masculine traits like risk-taking and wanting to regain strength to our advantage. Men tend to want an idea of how treatment is going to work from the outset, a structured plan for working towards recovery, the power to gain skills that help them deal with depression and to feel in control of their lives."
What Seidler is saying hearkens back to the primary differences between men and women. Namely, that women want to be heard while men want to fix things (CITE). Society puts a great deal of pressure on men to be “tough”. They are supposed to be unemotional and able to withstand anything. And this mentality has had a major impact on the way they perceive their own emotions. According to the Gateway Counseling Center, men are often depressed and don't even realize it. Some experts also believe that men are raised to put less trust in others and to by hyper-independent. Opening up to a therapist or counselor takes a great deal of trust- and even if men seek help, they may keep much of their experiences to themselves. Without sharing everything, it can be impossible for an expert to make a diagnosis or to offer a solution.
Breaking the stigma of mental health issues and seeking therapy can only happen over time, but talking about it is a good first step. Normalizing therapy and mental health treatment will be advantageous for all of us. As David Richo (CITE) says, “Our wounds are often the openings into the best and most beautiful part of us.” But we can't find those openings if we don't address the original wound.
P.S. 2020 has been a difficult year for many, and the conversation surrounding mental health continues to grow. One of my favorite organizations in the space is Bigger than the Trail, a nonprofit that uses trail running as a platform to enrich the lives of individuals struggling with mental health. Visit their website to learn more or make a donation.