It’s great to see a growing focus on men’s mental health. More and more men in the press and television are talking about the struggles they’ve gone through, including people like Rio Ferdinand, Frank Bruno, Prince William, and Professor Green. Several recent documentaries have focused on the alarming rates of male suicide in particular. The repeated message is if you’re struggling, talk to someone.
It’s a simple message, but one many men find challenging. I’ve lost track of how often I hear things like “I didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t want to look weak” or “I felt I just needed to Man Up”.
Why focus on men’s mental health?
- Men account for over 75% of all suicides. It’s the leading cause of death for men under 35.
- Men score significantly lower than women on the UK’s national well-being survey.
- Nearly three times more men are alcohol dependent than women.
- Men are three times more likely to report frequent drug use
So there’s a need for support, support is available, and that NHS data shows therapy is just as effective for men as for women. But too many men aren’t accessing the help that could make a real, potentially life-saving difference.
Why is it different for men and women?
People often point to a need to be strong, to not show weakness, as the reason for more men than women avoiding counselling.
The only flaw with that, is it suggests women don’t need to be strong, and are okay with being seen as weak.
That simply doesn’t fit my experience of women, whether in the therapy room or not.
So what is the difference then?
Instead, I think it’s about how men and women, in general, view strength and weakness.
I say in general, because of course there are many, many exceptions to every generalisation. But the stats above suggest there is something to do with gender going on.
Psychotherapists Iain Stewart and Vann Joines, in their book TA Today, describe a Be Strong driver, which feels relevant here. They define it as “you’re only OK if you hide your feelings and wants from people. Don’t let them see you’re weak.” I’m thinking it’s possible there may be gender differences around which emotions are considered important to keep hidden.
Boy’s don’t cry
Most of us will have heard the expression “boys don’t cry”. Some men may have been told that by their parents. Others will have heard it from childhood friends or through books, films, TV etc. When I was little, the playground accusation of “crying like a girl” was meant to shame whichever boy it was aimed at. Anger was often considered okay, though (including guilt, which is anger directed inwards). So boys would often decide that when hurting, they should feel angry, or guilty, instead of sad.
Girls don’t get angry
Women, on the other hand, will often have heard the message when young that they mustn’t get angry. Crying often didn’t have the same taboo. So girls would often decide that when they’re angry, they should feel sad instead.
But why does this mean fewer men consider counselling?
Let’s try a quick experiment. Picture a man sitting with a counsellor and feeling emotional. Now look at his eyes. Are there tears in them?
I suspect the answer is yes. And that’s understandable. Almost every depiction of counselling I’ve seen in films, TV, books, comics etc, involves people crying at some point. And what’s the one thing you’re sure to find in every counselling room? A box of tissues.
So for many men their thought process, probably out of awareness, might go like this: Counselling involves crying. Crying is a sign of weakness. I need to be strong. Therefore, counselling isn’t for me.
How can we change this way of thinking?
It might be tempting to challenge men’s need to be strong. But that belief is deeply engrained in most men, and society as a whole. Times are changing, but this level of change certainly won’t be quick.
But beliefs that counselling always involves crying, and crying is a sign of weakness, are easier to challenge. I believe they are both based on misunderstandings about what counselling is about and what emotions are for.
You don’t have to cry during counselling
As a counsellor myself, I don’t see my job as making anybody do anything they don’t want to. The tissues are there because some people do cry, but they certainly don’t have to. I never think “today was successful because he cried” or “today wasn’t successful because she didn’t cry”. What is considered a successful outcome depends entirely on the unique person I’m working with, why they’ve come, and what they hope to get from counselling.
All emotions are equal
Feelings and emotions do play a big part in counselling. But all emotions are equally important, and there’s a reason for that. They all provide crucial information about our needs and wants.
I’ve already written a blog about emotions here, but in a nutshell, each of the main categories of emotions has a specific purpose:
- Happiness: Feeling happy tells us our needs and wants are being met. We can take steps to make sure this continues.
- Anger: Feeling angry tells us our needs and wants are not being met. We can take steps to get those needs and wants met.
- Sadness: Feeling sad tells us our needs and wants in the past weren’t met, or something we need or want has been lost. We can take steps to come to terms with the past and perhaps try to get those needs and wants met in the present.
- Fear: Feeling afraid tells us our needs and wants are under threat of being lost. We can take steps to keep them safe.
If we block any of these emotions, it can mean crucial information is lost to us. Information that can help us make healthier choices in our lives.
Emotions are not a sign of weakness
Hopefully, this understanding of what emotions do, and why we have them, shows why it doesn’t make sense to see sadness, or any other emotion, as a sign of weakness. It’s simply our bodies giving us information. It would be like seeing hunger, or thirst, as a sign of weakness.
What we choose to do with that information, though, is up to us. There may well be no perfect choices, it might take real strength and courage to deal with some situations. But being open to all the information we have available, gives us the best possible chance of success.
The message that if you’re struggling, talk to someone, is a simple one. And the reasons why so many men don’t do that are complex. But I hope that seeing counselling isn’t just about crying, and that all emotions are equal, have a purpose, and are not a sign of weakness, might help a few more men to consider accessing the mental health support that’s available to them.