New therapist guidelines receive criticism for claim that traditional masculinity harms men

“Traditional masculine ideology” harms men, according to the American Psychological Association’s (APA) first-ever guidelines for therapists working with men and boys. The claim has drawn criticism from right-wing pundits as well as other psychologists who worry that this attitude will deter men from seeking the mental health support they need.

And it is clear that men need more support. Men are nearly four times more likely to die by suicide than women, yet are significantly less likely to seek therapy. Men were hit harder by the recession, and are at the center of a new cultural conversation that’s been sparked by the #MeToo movement.

The APA first decided to create guidelines for working with men in 2005, according to APA chief of professional practice Jared Skillings. (Bureaucratic shuffling delayed the project until recently.) The 10 guidelines address everything from helping men in relationships to addressing the issues that lead men to put their health at risk by not going to the doctor. Various sections deal specifically with “the impact of power, privilege, and sexism,” and point to high rates of problems like aggression, violence, substance abuse, and suicide.

This framing could be seen as needlessly emphasizing the message that being a man is bad, says John Barry, a professor at University College London who is the editor of the upcoming Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology and Mental Health. “People already tend to focus on things like toxic masculinity,” he says. “If men are hearing that they’re the ones with all the power and privilege, when men are having these problems emotionally in relationships and contemplating suicide, it’s kind of implied that it’s all their fault.”

But both Skillings and Matt Englar-Carlson, director of the Center for Men and Boys at California State University, Fullerton and an author of the new guidelines, say that the message is not that being a man is bad. It’s that rigid gender roles and taking certain parts of masculinity too far are bad. For example, says Englar-Carlson, men are expected to be independent, and that’s generally a good thing. “But if you’re only independent all the time and that’s all you can do and you can’t ask for help, that has ramifications that are not healthy,” he says.

Englar-Carlson points out that the guidelines suggest that therapists think about “masculinities” because there’s not just one. He, along with Barry at UCL, says that psychologists should focus on developing “positive masculinities,” or positive ways to reinforce masculine traits like trying to take leadership roles.

So what does it mean for a trait to be a form of “positive masculinity”? If, for example, you’re encouraging men to be more open about their feelings, isn’t that a traditionally feminine trait? Not exactly, says Englar-Carlson. Humans want connection and want to be valued, but men and women are socialized to find those things differently. The trick is to appreciate all of the different forms that can take.

For example, if you go into a coffee shop and see two women having a cup of coffee, making eye contact, and having an intense conversation, it’s pretty clear that’s a form of intimacy. On the other hand, Englar-Carlson says, consider three men in a backyard doing construction. “They’re not sitting across from each other in a coffee shop. They’re working and putting down rebar and digging holes,” he says. “But they’ve been nonstop for three hours about their lives and what’s happening. Isn’t that intimate, too? To me, part of positive masculinity is recognizing that the way men are socialized to build connections is different, not better or worse, and encouraging that.” It’s not saying that men have to all head to the coffee shop. It’s helping them build their own ways of making friends. It’s not telling them they can’t be leaders. It’s making sure they’re inclusive and are leaders in a healthy way.

Skillings emphasizes that the guidelines, which include input from hundreds of researchers, are meant to be suggestions of best practices, not strict professional standards. Nobody will be punished for not following them. Rather, they’re the APA’s effort to show that they’ve given serious thought to the specific issues that men face. As Englar-Carlson puts it: “I don’t think you can read the whole guidelines and not leave with the understanding that this is about helping men lead healthier lives.”

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