In 2019 male suicide rates in the UK reached their highest level for two decades.  These Office of National Statistics data also showed that men accounted for 75% of all suicides registered in that year.  But why?

Since 2019 the pandemic has clearly put the most vulnerable at even higher risk with the threat of unemployment, homelessness and general continuing uncertainty greatly affecting their ability to cope with difficult feelings.

But there are clearly other things going on too.  The Mental Health Foundation suggests that societal expectations have a part to play.     Masculinity is expected to include being the breadwinner of the family and showing ‘traits like strength, stoicism, dominance and control’.  But reliance on these characteristics may adversely affect men’s mental health.  Further, an inability to speak openly about emotions may be connected with a diminished capacity to spot mental health problems in oneself and a lower likelihood of seeking help.  The latter, according to the Foundation, is borne out by statistics.

Changing views of masculinity

I suspect you may not be too surprised to read that.  After all, it reflects the traditional view of masculinity.  But male identity is changing, as we know.  You only need to go for a walk to see men pushing buggies or carrying babies, perhaps while being on paternity leave or being a house husband.  And for decades musicians from David Bowie to Frank Ocean have been stretching the boundaries of masculinity.  Change is happening too in the specific area of men’s mental health, helped by the likes of Princes William and Harry.  It’s becoming more acceptable for men to embark on psychotherapy or counselling.  But then that goes for women too.  The ‘taboo’ of talking cures is eroding.

Not so different?

My own experience as a psychotherapist – and that of some of my colleagues – does not comfortably fit the traditional view of masculinity as expressed above.  It goes without saying that the men I encounter professionally are willing to consider going into therapy.  Those who think it’s a load of hogwash tend not to get in touch.

The men who do enter therapy sometimes struggle a bit at first to talk about feelings but that often changes quickly.  It’s not that they can’t do it, more that they’re not used to doing it.  So above all what I notice is that once they start opening up there’s not a lot of difference between men and women in therapy.  Of course there are differences between how individuals approach it but in my experience those are not particularly gender-based differences.

I work a lot as a group psychotherapist and when a group of up to eight men and women are talking together honestly about their thoughts and feelings over a huge range of topics the flavour is pretty much the same across the board.  All that is good news.

A male or a female therapist?

For some men it seems to be easier to approach a male therapist in the first instance.   But some women  appear to prefer a female practitioner.  And some men prefer to talk to a woman.  Perhaps it’s more down to a person’s mental images of men and women, originating in their family backgrounds, than, once again, to a strict gender-based difference.

The effect of therapy

As for what they get out of psychotherapy, I’m pleased to say that I see both men and women benefiting significantly from it.  Most people gain at least something from therapy and many either achieve what they wanted to achieve when they went into the process or achieve more.

Are men more vulnerable?

Finally, back to the stats.  I was interested to read that GQ magazine recently surveyed 1005 Americans, ninety-seven percent of whom said that expectations of male behaviour have changed over the last ten years.  While forty-eight percent of men were comfortable with the changes, twenty-seven percent were not.

That leads me to reflect that it may even be that some men are fundamentally more vulnerable than women precisely because of the heavy load of traditional societal expectations they carry within them.  If you feel you have to be the strong silent type all the time but then you slip and reveal your vulnerability you perhaps risk getting even more hurt because a) showing vulnerability is believed to be dangerous or a failure of maleness and b) you might get laughed at.

Human beings

But in a nutshell my own experience is that men and women react in similar ways once they’re in therapy.  At the end of the day we therapists are not treating men.  We’re not treating women.  We’re treating people.