I am often contacted by people who are encouraging a male to seek psychological help. These males are either reluctant to seek help, or have asked someone (usually their female partner) to reach out and make the initial enquiry.
A large pile of scientific research has looked at help-seeking in males for both physical and psychological problems. The role of masculine stereotypes has grabbed a lot of attention. Numerous studies suggest that conforming to traditional masculinities is associated with reduced help-seeking (e.g., Galdas et al., 2005). You may be hesitant to call a psychologist if you value independence for instance. But it seems that masculinities have more widespread effects. For example, it has been su ggested that sticking to traditional masculine norms can affect the way symptoms of depression are experienced, and the way in which these symptoms are managed (Seidler et al., 2016).
So it seems that masculinities have far-reaching effects on health-related behaviour and the experience of psychological difficulties. Will Courtenay, a researcher in this area presented the idea that beliefs and behaviours related to health are an opportunity to ‘do’ masculinities, or demonstrate whatever masculine attributes may be valued by a particular group at the time (Courtenay, 2000). This idea is important when you consider research around help-seeking barriers. One group of researchers found that barriers to seeking help for physical and psychological problems included a reluctance to talk about emotions and health concerns, anxiety, and communication issues with professionals (Yousaf, 2013). Going back to Courtenay’s idea, if you’re a bloke who feels anxious around a health issue, you might be motivated to ignore symptoms to demonstrate qualities such as ‘toughness’ or ‘resilience’.
What can you do?
An important take-home message from this research is that help-seeking is a complicated process. It would be a mistake to look at the reluctant help-seeker in your life and put his behaviour down to a single cause. Bearing this in mind, here are some suggestions for responding to a male who may need help:
- Most importantly, there must be some interest in seeking help before you can move things along. If he is totally resistant, you will likely make the situation worse by pushing too hard. Instead, you should regularly remind him that you are available to listen, and hope there is an eventual change in attitude.
- Some people advocate using specific language that might be more acceptable to men, such as the word ‘stress’ rather than depression. I personally think this is rubbish. You can’t say on the one hand there is no shame in experiencing psychological difficulties, then on the other hand try to use softer or euphemistic language. Depression is depression, anxiety is anxiety. When talking to males about psychological distress, we should put our energy into using simple, direct language with some compassion and understanding thrown in.
- Talk about what barriers exist to making an appointment. For example, it is normal to feel anxious about seeing a psychologist. I often have clients (male and female) who are uncomfortable in the first session. The good news is that this quickly fades for most people. It makes total sense that addressing something unpleasant fills people with dread.
- Find a psychologist who is happy to have some preliminary contact to break the ice. This can help demystify the process, address inaccurate ideas about what happens in a session, etc. Also, working with someone who has a collaborative philosophy can be helpful. Feeling like you have a say/have control over the process can help men stick with the process (Sayers & Miller, 2004).
- Seek out other men who have worked with a psychologist. Again, this can help normalise the process and weed out unhelpful and/or false beliefs about what happens.
- Seek out other men who don’t follow the script of traditional masculinities. Behaviour change is hard if you have narrowly-focused beliefs about how men should behave. Spending time with more psychologically ‘flexible’ guys can help open up psychological help as an ok thing to do.
- If you can’t recognise a problem accurately, there is little chance you will seek the right help at the right time. Lack of knowledge about psychological problems can be a barrier to help-seeking in males (Cleary, 2016). Don’t assume he has an accurate understanding of what psychological problems are or look like. Use reliable sources of information to educate yourselves. Organisations such as the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), and the British Psychological Society (BPS) are examples of reputable information sources.
- Positive feelings and attitudes can encourage help-seeking. For example, hope has been linked with intentions to seek assistance amongst US university students (McDermott et al., 2017). Why would you seek help if you believed there was no hope of improvement? Talking to people who have benefitted from psychological input can assist here, along with looking for previous examples of ‘things getting better’ in the person’s life.
Some of these suggestions will be easier said than done. But, following through on a couple of these points may increase the odds of a positive outcome.
Jason offers on-line and in-person sessions, so if you need help with a psychological issue visit: www.jasonspendelow.com
Cleary, A. (2016). Help-seeking patterns and attitudes to treatment amongst men who attempted suicide. Journal of Mental Health, 26(3), 220-224.
Courtenay, W. H. (2000). Constructions of masculinity and their influence on men’s well-being: A theory of gender and health. Social Science & Medicine, 50(10), 1385-1401.
Galdas, P. M., Cheater, F., & Marshall, P. (2005). Men and health help-seeking behaviour: Literature review. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 49(6), 616-623.
McDermott, R. C., Cheng, H-L., Wong, J., Booth, N., Jones, Z., & Sevig, T. (2017). Hope for help-seeking: A positive psychology perspective of psychological help-seeking intentions. The Counseling Psychologist, 45(2), 1-29
Sayers, M. R., Miller, K. M. (2004). Help-seeking behaviours of suicidal men aged 17-35 years: A consumer consultation and participation pilot project. Ministerial Council for Suicide Prevention, Perth.
Seidler, Z. E., Dawes, A. J., Rice, S. M., Oliffe, J. L., Dhillon, H. M. (2016). The role of masculinity in men’s help-seeking for depression: A systematic review. Clinical Psychology Review, 49, 106-118.
Yousaf, O., Grunfeld, E. A., & Hunter, M. S. (2013). A systematic review of the factors associated with delays in medical and psychological help-seeking among men. Health Psychology Review, 9(2), 264-276.