June 16, 2020

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Caitlin Harper

Why It’s Hard For Men To Seek Therapy And How To Start

Getting mental health support is normal and healthy, but the stigma around seeking treatment combined with societal expectations of what men should and should not do sometimes means that men don’t receive the mental health treatment they deserve.

Getting mental health support is normal and healthy, but the stigma around seeking treatment combined with societal expectations of what men should and should not do sometimes means that men don’t receive the mental health treatment they deserve.

Studies have shown that conforming to masculine norms negatively impacts mental health and reduces the frequency of psychological help-seeking. Toxic masculinity, the idea that men should “just deal with” their pain, and social pressure can prevent men from feeling safe and comfortable enough to start therapy.

And, because symptoms can express themselves differently in men—such as feeling anger as a symptom of depression—sometimes it can be difficult for men to understand what they are feeling and how to cope without help. Men fully deserve to get the support they need.

So if men need and deserve mental health treatment, why is it so hard for them to seek it?

“Factors that prevent men from seeking therapy vary, but most surround the idea that we ‘should’ be on top of whatever we are feeling,” says Morgan Rosen, a New York City therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “The masculine voice that we hear shames us out of addressing our pain by labeling the need for help as weakness.”

But it is not a sign of weakness to seek mental health support—it’s a sign of strength and courage to take the first step and a sign of self-awareness to understand that you might need support in the first place. Still, the stigma surrounding anyone discussing mental health is real.

“The difficulty for most men when it comes to seeking therapy is the stigma and social construct that men need to ‘have it all together’ and can’t ask for help,” says Heather Stevenson. “Our culture has conditioned most of us to view asking for help or admitting that you have a problem as a sign of weakness. However, men in particular bear the brunt of this harmful stigma and as such, are far less likely to seek mental health treatment.”

In order for more men to seek mental health care, we need to reduce stigma

While access and affordability can be barriers to people of all genders accessing treatment, the sheer level of social stigma attached to men seeking mental health care is an additional hurdle.

“We can end the stigma surrounding men seeking therapy by discussing the process and benefits of therapy openly. As a man in therapy and a therapist who is a man, I see it as my obligation to discuss it with friends and family and to address and explore therapy with my loved ones. Vulnerability and compassion only breeds vulnerability and compassion. Men need to show men that more,” says Morgan.

A National Institute of Mental Health campaign called “Real Men. Real Depression" used the actual stories of men who were battling depression, including a New York City firefighter, to show men that they were not alone. They included the personal stories of men from many different ethnic and professional backgrounds.

The campaign also examined the language we use surrounding mental health and used a more targeted communication approach. Language and the way we communicate is important, and understanding the unique needs of individuals and using an intersectional approach makes people feel seen and understood.

“Therapy does not mean you have a ‘problem’ or have ‘failed,’ it can be tools and a safe space to figure out how to feel healthier,” says Francesca Parker. “Everyone can benefit from tools to help with communication and expressing our needs, no matter what gender you identify as. Therapy can be for those who are burnt out at work, having trouble communicating with their significant other, or want outside accountability during big life transitions and the tools to not feel overwhelmed.”

Normalizing the conversation around mental health, sharing the stories of men who have benefitted from getting mental health care, and understanding that seeking treatment does not make you weak are all important steps to reducing the stigma around men going to therapy and getting the care they deserve.

“We’ve conditioned men in particular to view emotions and emotional expression as a weakness or indication of femininity, and have a history of shaming men when they do express emotions. This conditioning starts as early as childhood and therefore turns into long ingrained beliefs that become difficult to change or push back against,” says Heather.

If a man is considering going to therapy, what is the first step he can take?

People of all genders can benefit from self reflection and identifying some of the areas in their lives where they might need support. Therapists specialize in a range of topics including relationships, depression, chronic pain, work, and the intersection of these things.

“For men who do consider seeking therapy, one of the first steps can be acknowledging that emotions are not bad, are not a sign of weakness, and do not make them defective or any less masculine,” says Heather. “It also helps to remind men that therapy is not a place meant to make you ‘more emotional’ or that going to therapy makes you any less of a man, but that therapy is a place to help you gain better control of your emotions and learn tools that help in all areas of your life including: career, personal relationships, and overall health.”

“The first step a man takes in seeking therapy is looking at what they want to address in therapy. It can be hard to find the right therapist, but it is even harder when you do not know what you want to discuss in therapy,” says Morgan.

You don’t need to have all the answers before you take the first step—far from it! But narrowing your focus and identifying your needs in advance will make it much easier to find the right match for you.

Once you decide to start therapy, telling your family or friends can be hard

Social stigma, cultural norms, and our own beliefs can make it difficult to open up to those close to us about our mental health needs and our decision to seek therapy. But there are tools and scripts you can use to make the process easier.

“Men discussing with loved ones their readiness to seek therapy can be difficult at times, but understanding and communicating the purpose of therapy—to better one's self and initiate a change—are universal processes and can help family and friends understand the importance of this process,” says Morgan.

When you want to open up, wait until you and your loved one are in a calm moment; it will be much easier for both of you to communicate when the atmosphere is positive or neutral rather than after a fight or when you’re feeling sad, angry, or anxious.

You can be honest about your struggles if you’re comfortable doing so, and it’s up to you how much information you want to share with your friends and family. If you want to give them background about your thoughts or feelings or the pain you have been experiencing, you can do that. You don’t need to center them or blame them as part of your explanation. Focus on what you’re doing for yourself: that you’re committed to helping yourself and taking care of your mental health.

If the other person reacts poorly, end the conversation. Even dismissive statements like “everybody feels that way” or “it’s all in your head” or “get over it” can be very hurtful for you. The decision to seek mental health treatment or even discuss mental health can be difficult for most people—understand that the conversation might be hard for the person you’re speaking to as well. Often, they will have to process the information just like you did, so you can give them the space to do that.

If the person is supportive, even better! Know that you’re doing something brave just by speaking about your mental health. Talking about mental health lessens the stigma and normalizes the conversation and who knows: you might be talking to someone who has considered seeking mental health support as well and you’re doing something brave by giving them the strength and support they need to take their first step.

When you’re ready to start therapy, know that there is help out there for you

“As a man, going to see a therapist was difficult for a number of reasons. I felt a shame from some collective ‘they’ that discussing my pain made me weak. What I learned is that by allowing myself to trust the process of therapy I showed myself a strength that I never knew I had. Developing fluency in our own emotional language can only ever benefit us,” says Morgan.

You’ll feel stronger and more prepared if you take some steps ahead of time to find the right therapist, make the most of your first phone consultation, and prepare for your first session.

“One recommendation I have for men who want to start therapy is to make sure they find the right fit for what they are looking to address,” says Heather. “In my practice, I specialize in working with men and often find that they appreciate and respond best to approaches that are more direct, action-oriented, and focused in concrete behavior changes. Often, once we start with this type of groundwork, the men I work with notice they start to feel better quickly and are then more willing to engage in some of the more challenging emotional work that can dramatically change their relationships and improve their happiness in life. However, starting with a therapist whose primary approach is relationally based or classic psychoanalytic or psychodynamic might be too much of a turn off for men who aren’t ready or don’t yet have the skills to do that style of work. Finding a therapist with a more integrative approach might be a better fit for men, and in particular finding therapists who specialize in working with men and men's issues can prove to be vastly helpful.”

Seeking mental health treatment is never a sign of weakness and everyone deserves to access the care they need. Because of social stigma, it can be more difficult for men to take the first steps, but know that you deserve support and that there are therapists out there who are ready to work with you and your specific needs. And when you’re ready to get matched, you can use MyWellbeing to find the right therapist for you.

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About the author

Caitlin is MyWellbeing's Content Lead, a writer, speaker, communication coach, and the founder of Commcoterie, a communication consultancy. She teaches teams how to use professional coaching communication techniques in their everyday conversations, helps leaders engage their teams with effective and inclusive communication, and partners with service providers to activate their programs and offerings with their own clients through inspiring communication strategies. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.

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