Generally speaking the attention of mental health social workers, social work researchers and social work educators has been drawn to the most vulnerable people in society, namely women and children. But what about the needs of men? Not only are the mental health needs of men inherently important; the status of a man’s mental health affects the women and children who may be in his ambit.
To address this issue, Kevin Shafer, PhD, and Douglas Wendt have written an article in a recent issue of Social Work calling for more attention and research to be directed at men’s mental health issues.
Noting that the relationship between gender and mental health is complex, the authors discuss which mental health issues tend to be more common among women, which more common among men, and which are equally common for both genders. They further note that issues of traditional masculinity, particularly the values of independence and self-reliance, tend to hinder men from seeking help with mental health issues.
So how can social workers help men? While the traditional male values can be seen as a hindrance (as previously noted) social workers should not dismiss these values out of hand. They are an integral part of many men’s lives, and furthermore can be useful in therapeutic settings. Male norms such as being action oriented, problem solving, and goal-focused are strengths to be used in mental health therapies.
Social workers also need to know that men and women may express mental health issues differently, but also that men should not be viewed as a homogenous group.
Additionally, contextualizing mental health issues as medical issues may be an effective approach to enlisting men in dealing with their mental health issues. If a man has a broken leg he would see a doctor. Pointing out that mental health is part of self-care along the same lines as repairing broken bones is often effective in getting men to overcome reluctance to participate in counseling.
Furthermore, as the authors so succinctly state:
Social workers should show that they trust men, are happy they are seeking help, want to understand their unique problems and issues, and will meet them where they are.
Social work’s core values of respect and dignity for all individuals, and of self-determination, put social workers in an excellent position to engage men in mental health services. The authors note that while significant research has been pursued in the area of men’s mental health, much more is needed, especially with regards to engaging men in the work of their own therapeutic growth and recovery.