Challenging the illusion that men don’t need help

30 January 2017

‘So what’s your research about?’

‘Gender differences in preferences for therapy’.

‘Oh, you mean like how women want to talk about their feelings and men just want a quick solution?’

I couldn’t have been more gobsmacked if I had been talking to Derren Brown. This clinical psychologist had – without realising it – summarised the key finding of one of the two posters I was about to put up at the recent Division of Clinical Psychology conference in Liverpool. And the display of mind-reading kept going for the next two days. Between myself and my co-authors, Louise Liddon and Roger Kingerlee, we spoke with about 30 psychologists, and without exception they were able to relate our research findings to their clinical experience.

I have learned to see male psychology as the Cinderella (Cinder Fella?) of the psychology world. In fact it is likely that we collectively experience ‘male gender blindness,’ which makes it more difficult for us to see male suffering than female suffering. Like the rabbit/duck optical illusion, people typically see only one side of the picture unless prompted to see the other. But here I was, standing in a room full of psychologists saying, in effect, ‘hmmm… ok yeah, there is a duck there too’. It seemed that my research described something they were already vaguely aware of but hadn’t fully realised, and once they saw it they were fascinated.

So let’s rid ourselves of illusions: it’s not a question of whether it’s a rabbit or a duck – it’s both. And it’s not a question of whether we should focus on male or female issues – we need to focus on both, and be mindful of the variations inbetween. Until now, our collective lack of focus on the male part of the problem has allowed elephants in the room like the high male suicide rate and boys falling behind in education to continue unchallenged.

So the DCP conference was a refreshing change from the norm. And it wasn’t only the psychologists who took an interest, there was an unusual amount of media attention too, suggesting that the public are ahead of academia in appreciating that men and women are – shock horror – different in some ways. That’s not to say that men and women are completely different, but if men kill themselves at 3.5 times the rate women do, and seek therapy less than women do, then it could be that the differences are relevant for how we provide mental health services.

It will be interesting to see what happens in early April when BPS members receive the ballot paper to vote for a new section of the BPS dedicated to male psychology i.e. the study of psychological issues predominantly facing men and boys. Male psychology needs female participants and researchers, and ultimately the result of the vote should be a win-win for both sexes.

John Barry, University College London

Louise Liddon, University of Northumbria

Roger Kingerlee, Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust

Martin Seager, Central London Samaritans