Raising the profile of men and their mental health has been recently highlighted by Prince Harry and his promotion of the “Heads Together” campaign. The many theories and statistics relating to men’s mental health and their willingness to seek help are at once concerning and frightening. Statistics show that men, particularly those aged under 50, are at high risk of suicide. In most of the articles on this subject there are well-rehearsed theories, most relating to the psychological and sociological perception of men by themselves, and indeed without any doubt these are valid and relevant.
There is another interesting statistic which is worthy of analysis, and it relates to the number and availability of male counsellors – is there a correlation to the number of men seeing a counsellor? In 2014 out of 40,000 counsellors registered with the BACP, only 20% are male.
In addition to their presenting problems, men come with an additional agenda – their masculinity and how it is being challenged. The sociological conditioning which is cited most often for men not seeking counselling – such notions as “big boys don’t cry” and that men are encouraged to be “strong and successful”, seeking help through counselling is therefore seen as a failure in the concept of “being a man”. Crucially men need to break free from these stereotypes, and seek to understand themselves as individuals.
Does this also apply to men considering a career as a counsellor? The rigorous self-examination required during a counselling training course, including experiential groups, role play and personal therapy are challenging for all students, but demand a particularly strong self-belief amongst men to overcome the resistance instilled by their social conditioning.
Some of the answers I believe also lie behind the closed doors of the counselling room, the creation of a secure therapeutic space, and a comfortable therapeutic alliance between the counsellor and the client, is important with all clients, but particularly for men who are taking this journey for the first time. If the exposure of emotions is perceived as weakness, the presence of another male who can share to some degree these sensitivities, will offer re-assurance and safety. The exposure of emotional vulnerability to a neutral male does not carry the same sensitivities as with a female where the presence of maternal attachment influences as well as the sociological concept of “being a man” could both discomfort the client. There is less pressure on the male client to fulfil the expectations of “being a man” when sitting with another male. It is perhaps a function of the male to male chemistry which is unspoken, but understood, coming in to play.
The potential of erotic transference and occasionally more blatant sexual tensions are often discussed, the presence of these feelings in the counselling room will be an additional issue which can be largely avoided in a male-male counselling dyad. My experience has led me to the conclusion that in many cases there is a deliberate selection by men in the counsellor they will be comfortable working with; this I believe reflects the needs of men to have some degree of control.
If there exists some hesitation towards seeking help, additional complicating factors will make this decision even harder.
A change in attitude towards the particular needs of men is long overdue. Recent reports about male domestic abuse again highlight the differential in support offered to men and this needs to be addressed. Ultimately counselling services need to be able to reflect the needs of the community it serves, the more that men seek out counselling services, and experience positive outcomes, this will reflect positively in more men taking up counselling training to make a career in this area.
In a sector which is so dominated by the female gender, it is surely incumbent upon the professional institutions, and training organisations and employers to make every attempt to redress the balance. The promotion of counselling as a viable and rewarding career for males, and potentially the positive selection of male counsellors into public sector roles wherever possible would be a move in the right direction.