Men & Mental Health; using men’s groups to break down barriers

by Richard C. Horowitz, Ed.D.,

Robin Williams’s suicide certainly did make the issue of mental health among men a major media event for a week or so.  The expressions of shock, the tributes and the expert talking heads dominated the news cycle. However, as with most singular events the conversation abruptly ends. Mental illness—specifically depression—has a strong link to men committing suicide and is too important an issue to let the conversation end.

Right now suicide is the single biggest killer of young men in Britain, with the US not far behind. If you are young and have a penis you are more likely to kill yourself than you are to be killed by someone else—even in combat. Older men who commit suicide often leave a trail of misfortune for their wives and children who wonder why he abandoned them so suddenly.

Although women suffer from depression at even higher rates than men they are far less likely to kill themselves. The reason is that, frankly, men suck at confronting mental health issues.  “Even when men do realize that they are depressed, abusing alcohol or have some other problem, they are still less likely than women to see a psychologist or other mental health professional,” says psychologist and masculinity researcher James Mahalik, PhD, of Boston College, who gives a thorough overview of the evidence in a 2003 article in the American Psychologist (Vol. 58, No. 1, pages 5-14).

The Man Code

Many men still cling to the tenets of the old man code, exemplified by the John Wayne and Marlboro man approach to dealing with problems. Suck it up, don’t show emotion and go at it alone.  That is how real men are supposed to respond to life’s challenges. It is especially disheartening to see that when it comes to dealing with mental illness even younger men raised in the feminist era still cling to the misguided beliefs of the old man code. The underlying principle in the code is that expressing vulnerabilities indicates weakness and needs to be hidden.  Even more destructive is the linkage men make between being vulnerable and feeling ashamed of those feelings. Shame is such a negative emotion for men that we will engage in denial and/or self-destructive behaviors to avoid experiencing it.

The question that remains is what can be done to help men seek the help they need when mental health issues—depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar disorder, etc.—begin to impair their functioning. The traditional educational approaches—media coverage, public service announcements, programs from mental health advocacy groups, physician advice—coupled with an increase in insurance coverage for mental health treatment are all helpful but not sufficient. This is especially true for men who tend to cling to the antiquated male code.

What is needed is a safe place, free of shame, where men can learn the tools to tune into their emotional lives. It can happen when a man becomes involved in a men’s support/discussion group.  In a group setting men learn to share their vulnerabilities and be heard without being shamed.  Just knowing that whatever dark thoughts one is experiencing are not unique and are shared by other men is a great relief.   The ability to share both the negative and positives of one’s life journey in the presence of other men helps to liberate a man from the toxic belief that needing help is not manly.

Starting a men’s group

A men’s group should be designed to provide a safe and shameless experience for men to discuss, share, explore, and live inside the best of masculinity. In it, men are encouraged to broaden their imagination of masculinity to include fulfilling, and expressing, a broad spectrum of emotional needs, desires, and capabilities. The group, led by a peer, should invite men who are searching for more meaning, connection, and growth in their lives. Ideally, men should be from all walks of life and at various stages of career, age, and from many backgrounds. As men participate, they become willing to trust, think, process, laugh, support, encourage and model the pursuit of a fulfilling life. They engage authentically because the group creates a safe atmosphere by imposing only one rule . . .no man shames another.

The group does not explicitly provide therapy; members seen as having psychological issues should be encouraged to seek outside resources. At the same time, the men’s group experience is an effective support for men currently in therapy. It can be a catalyst for experiences and change perhaps not accessible through individual or couple therapy. In addition, the influence of the group experience goes far beyond the participants; the beneficiaries are also the wives, family, and other significant relationships connected to the group member.

The reality is there are men’s groups that are operating according to the guidelines that have been described. I have been part of one and a peer facilitator for over 15 years and have been instrumental in forming a new one using the “Meetup” web service to let men know we exist.

Richard C. Horowitz, Ed.D. holds a doctorate in education from Rutgers University and for over 40 years has worked with families and children in a variety of educational and institutional settings. He is the author of Family Centered Parenting – Your Guide For Growing Great Families. Dr. Horowitz has served as adjunct faculty at Caldwell College and Fairleigh Dickinson University. He is a past–president, trustee and group facilitator for Men Mentoring Men, a non-profit organization supporting men and the redefining of masculinity and is a former Peace Corps volunteer. A review of his book will appear on Crazy Good Parent on Thursday, September 11.

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