“Real men don’t cry.” “Tough it out.” “Man up.” We’ve all heard these phrases before. While they’ve become commonplace, these expressions reinforce outdated expectations of what men should and shouldn’t do. When it comes to mental health, this has led to the misconception that men don’t have, and aren’t even supposed to have, the same feelings as women. Obviously, this couldn’t be further from the truth — we all experience pain, happiness, sadness, anger and a range of other emotions, but men aren’t encouraged to talk about them. This makes a lot of men averse to any kind of mental health or substance abuse treatment.
If men really “hate” therapy, what can we do about it? Research has shown time and again how damaging it can be to ignore our mental health needs. But by looking at some of the explanations for why men tend to be more treatment-averse, we can begin to develop solutions for overcoming the stigma associated with therapy and help men realize that recovery takes strength, and there’s nothing “weak” about safeguarding your mental wellness.
Without further ado, let’s dig in.
It’s simple biology — men and women are hardwired differently. Studies suggest that women have an easier time identifying and expressing emotions and score higher in tests of empathy, emotion recognition and social sensitivity, while men are more likely to keep things bottled up. That’s not to say men don’t have feelings or respond to emotional cues, but the way they process them differs, and cultural norms encourage them to act calm, cool and collected under any circumstance. This has conditioned men to ignore difficult emotions rather than deal with them, and leaves few options for healthy outlets.
Biology can also explain the consequences of untreated mental health issues. We now know that mental illness is a complex condition affected by various factors like genetics, trauma, brain chemistry and environment. It’s not some moral failing or a sign of weakness, but a real medical problem that can manifest in a number of ways, including physical symptoms or ailments. If ignored, mental illness can lead to headaches, insomnia, digestion issues, muscle pain, fatigue and more. It can also increase the risk of drug or alcohol abuse. By learning more about the biology behind mental health and how it affects the brain, we can help educate ourselves and others on the importance of seeking help when we need it, and overcome the instinct to react defensively when confronted with our emotions.
Cultural norms are another reason why men tend to avoid therapy. Most men spend their whole lives bombarded by messages, clichés and old adages that tell them to be tough and stoic, and they’re taught from a young age that showing emotion is a sign of weakness. This can stay with them through adulthood, often resulting in an avoidance of vulnerability and creating a mindset that makes it harder to open up to others. This hasn’t done men any favors, since it can make some unwilling to admit when they need help and ignore their mental health needs. In the long run, this does more harm than good, leading to unhealthy coping mechanisms and deeper emotional pain.
So how do we combat this? One way is to break the stigma of mental illness and normalize the need for seeking help. While we’ve come a long way in this regard, feelings of guilt or shame still prevent many men from taking charge of their mental wellness. Be open about your own need for mental health care and how things like stress, isolation and uncertainty affect you. By sharing our own experiences, we can create more transparency around substance abuse or mental health issues and foster a greater sense of camaraderie and support. Raising awareness also lets men know they don’t have to suffer alone, which can make it easier for them to start thinking about treatment in a more positive light.
It’s the Status Quo
We get it, change is scary. Most people would prefer to maintain the status quo, whether good or bad, rather than rock the boat. While often done to minimize the risk of a worse outcome, this way of thinking also means that we miss out on the potential benefits of a better alternative. So when it comes to therapy, many men might be reluctant because they’re not sure what to expect, or how it will affect the status quo. Digging deep into our problems or issues often means deconstructing preconceived ideas or notions and letting go of the illusion that “everything is fine.” And while men might be content with how things are, others in their life may be concerned about their mental health or want to communicate more openly. Is avoiding the threat of change worth sacrificing healthier relationships or an improved state of mind? (Hint: No, no it isn’t).
Our tendency to stick with what we know is called the status quo bias. It often arises when we’re faced with complex decisions. “When in doubt, do nothing.” But one way we can overcome a status quo bias is by thinking about our situation in a different way. For example, when asked if they’d consider therapy as an option to improve their relationships and mental health, a lot of men might say no. But when presented with the scenario from another angle — would they be willing to let their mental health and relationships decline just to avoid therapy — the answer might change. By changing our perspective, and refusing to accept dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs as the norm, we can allow ourselves to open up to the possibility of accepting help and addressing our problems through therapy.
It’s a Lost Cause
Many men can have trouble connecting with their inner emotions and admitting their problems, even to a therapist. They might feel like they’re supposed to have it all together and hold things back, or just be unsure of where to begin. Others think it’s all a big waste of time, and because they’re unwilling or unable to confront their difficult emotions, that even attempting therapy is a lost cause. So why bother?
A lot of men think therapy can’t help them, for these and countless other reasons. But recovery is like anything else in life — you get back what you put into it. If you think it’s all a big waste of time going into it, then it probably will be. Beginning a therapy session by saying, “I want to improve my mental health, but I don’t want to change this, or talk about this,” is like saying you want to lose weight, but refuse to exercise or eat healthy. It’s just not going to happen. It’s essential to go into therapy with an open mind and, if you need to, take things slow. You can set the pace and talk about whatever you’re comfortable with until you establish trust with your therapist. Coming prepared with a list of topics to discuss beforehand can also be helpful, especially if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the process. But no matter how you’re feeling, remember that your therapist isn’t there to judge you or shame you — they’re there to help you take an honest look at yourself and develop strategies that will help you grow.
So What Have We Learned?
A lot of men are treatment-averse for a number of reasons, including those mentioned above. But whether a reluctance to begin therapy (or any other form of treatment) is due to difficulties expressing emotion, cultural norms, a fear of change or thinking it’s all just a big waste of time, it’s important to shift the narrative and get men thinking about their mental health in a different way. Mental health issues have a big impact on our overall health and well-being, and ignoring them doesn’t make them go away. While clinicians might argue over the merits of a particular approach or modality, there’s no denying the consequences of trying to deal with things like depression, anxiety or substance abuse without help. The number of men who overdose or die by their own hand each year is evidence of this.
At Choice House, we know the difficulties men face when confronted with a mental health or substance abuse problem. We’ve helped men from all walks of life begin their recovery journey in the Rocky Mountains and understand how factors like masculine gender roles, the stigma of seeking help and difficulties opening up can impact the treatment process. That’s why our services are tailored to the unique needs of our clients and utilize an inclusive, collaborative approach to help men reconnect with their inner selves and reach new levels of personal growth. Our offerings include a 90-day residential program, outpatient care, sober living, IOP for professionals, family therapy and more.
To learn more about Choice House and how we can help you or a loved one get the most out of treatment, don’t hesitate to contact or call us today at 303-578-4977.