Men's issues and therapy techniquesBrowse all therapists
Like anyone else, men and those who identify as men experience mental health challenges. This could include issues and disorders like anxiety, depression, anger, PTSD, bi-polar disorder, eating and body image issues, and more. It can also be simply needing someone to talk with to help overcome negative feelings and thoughts to improve your overall outlook on life.
Therapists who focus their practice on men will be able to work with you through these mental health challenges and, importantly, will be trained to approach counselling with attention to external factors impacting men’s lives.
Men have faced a number of unique barriers to therapy because psychotherapy has historically been targeted to women (the American Psychological Association only released guidelines for practice with men and boys in 2019) and because of how masculinity is perceived in our society.
Today, women still tend to make up the majority of therapy patients. Despite men under-utilizing mental health services compared to women, they report symptoms of mental health disorders at similar rates.
Any barrier facing men when it comes to therapy is further complicated for Black, indigenous and other men of colour; according to American Psychological Association data from 2018, only about 4% of the PhD level psychologists (who would contribute heavily to research and furthering academic understanding of their field) are Black.
The good news is that some of these perceptions are changing, in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The charitable men’s health organization Movember released survey data in 2021 that showed a whopping four-out-of-five Canadian men are going to prioritize their mental health (higher than work or romance).
What kinds of mental health issues affect men?
While gender is not the only context for men’s mental health, men can experience unique pressures because of narrow expectations of masculinity like dominance, power and achievement. These can have a negative impact on behaviour, self worth, emotions, and relationships with others.
In Canada, the suicide rate for men is three times higher than for women and Canadian men are also three times more likely than women to suffer from addiction or substance abuse. These can be symptoms and coping mechanisms for mental health issues like depression and anxiety.
There is evidence that men face challenges even noticing these symptoms are present because they do not know how to recognize and name emotions—a phenomenon coined “normative male alexithymia”—in part because they’ve been taught to suppress emotions.
This can mean that men may unintentionally confuse negative or sad feelings (normal parts of being human) with being childish or inferior in some way. Often, this relationship with emotions and masculinity starts in childhood and adolescence when these kinds of emotions are criticized or judged.
Emotional or mood changes like anger or irritability are things a therapist can help with, but it may not be something everyone is able to pinpoint. These emotions are normal, so it may be difficult to know if it’s a problem. Some other signs to be aware of, which may be addressable with therapy, are:
- Restlessness or agitation
- Engaging in self-destructive behaviours
- Difficulty sleeping
- Changes in ability to focus or compulsive worry affecting regular daily activities
- Change in appetite or digestive issues
- Body aches including headaches without a clear cause
Effective therapy techniques for men
Therapy is not a one-size fits all. Everyone will have their own contexts they bring to counselling. People within the same demographic will have their own unique characteristics. A good therapist will know how to create an environment that meets you where you are. It’s very normal for people to go into therapy unsure of what will happen. If you’re new to talking about emotions, or feel uncomfortable with that, a therapist or counsellor can walk you through it in a way that works for you. Therapy can be very action-oriented with goals and steps to reach them, or it can be an open space for conversation.
Recent studies have shown that the approach to therapy can be the key success factor for many men. Rather than focusing on more feelings-focused and abstract discussions in talk therapy, men are shown to respond better if there is a structured plan, if the process is action-oriented and they can see progress toward their goals. Seeing how therapy is going to work from the outset, knowing skills can be attained and that there will be more control is motivating for a lot of people.
Mental health professionals have also found that changing language in treatment including explaining the process up front and taking a coaching approach (such as teaching emotional vocabulary) are effective tactics. When considering a therapist, it’s always a good idea to ensure you feel you have a strong therapist fit. This could include finding someone who matches your gender identity or sexual orientation—some men may feel more comfortable speaking with another man, or you might appreciate the perspective of a therapist from another demographic—it’s completely up to you.
Men can benefit from many different types of therapy, including psychotherapy approaches like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), or dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT) (especially if self-destructive behaviour is a factor), mindfulness therapy, and more.
One area of psychotherapy that is very effective for men is Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy. In IFS therapy, we learn that our inner selves are made up of several parts. Each part fills some kind of role for us—like a family. These parts are often named:
- The “firefighter” that jumps into action when we encounter something uncomfortable and tries to put out the fire/pain (could be with anger, or substance abuse);
- The “manager” that plans to protect us from pain in the first place (by being controlling, critical or judgemental of ourselves or others); and
- The “exile” which is the part of us we keep suppressed because it’s painful.
The firefighter and manager exist to try and keep the exile from coming through. For men, it’s powerful to learn the “angry part” is not evil, and the “sad part” doesn’t need to be suppressed.
All parts of us serve a function; by understanding them, our true selves can take a leadership position in who we are and how we behave.
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