The pandemic has driven many people into — or back into — therapy. We’ve probably all noticed this — if not because of the experiences of people we know, then from the sheer volume of people tweeting about being in therapy. On our feeds, we’ve seen memes relating the profound insights our therapists have dropped on us in a session, and joked about the way they speak. We’ve bonded over the secret but profound joy we feel when we finally make our therapists laugh. We’ve introduced our followers to our new therapists. But more than anything, we’ve collectively expressed our concern and pity for the one, very specific cohort of people who are almost definitely not going to therapy during this horrific and traumatising time: men.
Oh men — poor men with their unexamined lives! Though men are the main perpetrators of toxic masculinity, they are, too, the hapless victims of it, and that is perhaps never more apparent in their willingness to, as the saying goes, do anything but go to therapy. In one way, it’s shocking. Imagine resisting the joys that come with baring your soul to a professional? Imagine rejecting the restored relationships, the sense of forward momentum, the promise of a good cry, the mustard seed of hope that with a little help, you — you! — could be the one to finally break the cycle of intergenerational trauma that has been debilitating your family for centuries. Better yet, don’t imagine it — it’s just too sad to contemplate this type of self-sabotaging resistance.
And resist they do. Only 36% of NHS referrals for therapy are men. This is despite the fact that men report lower levels of life satisfaction than women according to the Government’s national wellbeing survey and the fact that men aged 40-49 have the highest suicide rates in the UK. Additionally, research shows that straight men seek out mental health care less often than gay or bisexual men, and that transgender people in general may be more likely to get mental heath treatment than cis people. We can’t say for sure how 2020 changed these numbers yet. Early research shows that women may have experienced more anxiety, depression, and sleep problems over the course of the last year. But that seems to be based at least somewhat on self-reported data, and surely part of the reason men aren’t seeking help is because they’re basically unable to admit that they’re suffering.
As an elder millennial, embracing therapy isn’t something that my age group did as readily as Gen Z does, for example. I’m very familiar with the internal excuses, the justifications, the stigmas, and the dodging techniques. But, as the tweets show, men elevate avoiding therapy to an art form.
It’s generally accepted that men avoid therapy because of what are known as “masculine norms,” or the behaviour that’s socially expected by men. “American men are subjected to a culture where the standards of masculinity are literally killing them,” asserts Benita N. Chatmon, PhD, in The American Journal of Men’s Health. One major masculine norm is an emphasis on self-control and reliance. Dr. Chatmon lists several awful consequences of strict adherence to masculine norms, including “increase in overall psychological distress” and “discouragement in seeking help.”
“When it comes to men, we know they are more likely to try and repress feelings anyway because ‘You shouldn’t have feelings as a man.’ That’s the social messaging,” Paul Ingram, an assistant professor of counseling psychology in Texas Tech University’s Department of Psychological Sciences, told Newswise. It’s no wonder they turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as substance use or, you know, inventing a god in the shape of their own image and then shaping society as a whole around that invention. What else are they supposed to do?
It goes without saying that all this therapy avoidance comes at a cost. You can’t just get away with reverse-parking and crime-fighting your way through deep emotional pain. Men suffer, of course. It’s well-established that men die of suicide at a higher rate than women, despite mental health issues appearing to affect more women than men.
But other people also shoulder the burden of men’s refusal to just get help. Dr. Chatmon also listed these consequences of rigid adherence to the masculine norms that discourage men from seeking help: “issues with dating and interpersonal intimacy” and “issues with interpersonal violence.”
All that said — are we expecting therapy to do too much work? How many sessions does it take to break through to the dude who would rather be out founding a new political party? What about the guy who loses it when a cashier hands him his items too fast?
It’s hard to say. In some cases, maybe no amount of therapy will fully fix what ails certain men. But it can’t make things worse, right?