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This is an interview with William Laird, LMSW on Men’s Mental Health. William Laird is a therapist here at Modern Therapy and Wellness.

Why do you think men’s mental health is important?

 It’s important because mental health is directly tied to physical health, and it’s a conversation that more men need to be having. Studies show that, on average, men have shorter life spans than women and that statistic is reinforced by the fact that men are far less likely to seek help than women.  Because suicide is the 7th leading cause of death for men, male suicides outnumber women 4 to 1. Men overdose at 2-3 times greater a rate than women, and 1 in 5 men will develop a problem with alcohol.  Heart attacks are the leading cause of death in men, and males are far less likely to get routine check-ups and attend follow-ups than women. Furthermore, during the onset of a mental health problem, women will seek help two times faster than men, and at drastically higher rates. Even the composition of therapists actively working in the profession reflect these disparities, with only around 25 percent of therapists being men.  

 This paints a grim picture of the current state of men’s mental health, and It highlights the importance of raising awareness to encourage these conversations to normalize men seeking help for life’s challenges.  We must continually challenge the idea that gender differences mean that men need less help and acknowledge that more men suffer in silence as a result of not seeking the needed help.  

Why do you think men are less likely to come forward for therapy?

 I believe that men are less likely to come to therapy because of both biological reasons and cultural norms.  Research shows that men and women process emotions differently, both positive and negative ones.  Whereas women are found to be more expressive and articulate surrounding emotions, research showed men to externalize negative emotions more frequently, such as anger while suppressing other emotions, such as sadness.  What’s important about this is that it doesn’t mean men experience less emotions, it means that they express them and talk about them far less.  It also means that they cope in different ways, and some of those ways are harmful to their mental health.  

Many of us were raised with the idea that men need to be calm, collected, and unaffected by feelings, and to be otherwise was to be less of a man. These stereotypical views helped condition generations of boys to accept the idea that their emotions, a natural and vital part of their essence, was a problem to be controlled and suppressed.  Boys aren’t taught how to identify their complicated emotions; we are taught how to minimize and suppress them.  

“Suck it up”

“Boys don’t cry”

“Toughen up”

“Don’t be weak”

“Stop acting like a girl”

“Man up”

“Be strong”

 Our culture prides itself on being self-made, on being independent and successful, and though most men value independence, these lessons create emotional responses that can emerge as serious problems later in life, including depression, anxiety, anger, substance use, gambling, risky behaviors, relationship problems, and suicidal thoughts and actions.  Coming to therapy contradicts all those lessons and values and can be particularly hard for men. It can feel like weakness and be difficult to talk about with loved ones.  It can feel like failure or shame for some, and these feelings can be the barrier for men in seeking help.  

Many men I speak with tell me things like:

“Music is my therapy “

“Camping is my therapy”

“The gym is my therapy”

  These are more “socially acceptable” practices that don’t contradict the collective views of masculinity that we are taught and modeled, and while these activities are certainly positive forms of self-care, they aren’t substitutes for the work that can be done in therapy, work that can help address things men may not even be aware of, such as unresolved trauma, depression, grief, anxiety, or communication problems.   The ideas of what it takes to be a “man” are the very ideas that cause serious problems for some men, while also being the reasons that men don’t come to therapy.  Therapy can help men who feel stuck, who may feel that something “isn’t right”, and help them redefine what it takes to be the man they want to be.  

What do you think are some issues that specifically impact men?

  • Idealized masculinity.  The “man box” doesn’t allow for much room, and often sees through the lens of “strong and successful”.  Younger men who have not achieved financial success may struggle with identity and with feeling capable and worthy, and older men can struggle with the life changes that make them feel “feeble or weak”.   The drive to be successful can put untold pressure on men.  Media and film often portray men in unrealistic or stereotypical ways. They are portrayed as sexist, bullies, or incompetent; or they are depicted as superhuman; veritable superheroes who are rich, good looking, and successful, and neither of these extremes are a balanced view of men in general.  

  •  Fatherhood is an area that many men struggle in.  Being the “provider” can be difficult, and men can suffer with anxiety and feelings of doubt about themselves that they don’t express, and sometimes, without even being aware of it, pass on the lessons and ideas that have hurt them along the way.  
  •  Promiscuity, sex, and pornography can be some sensitive areas that specifically affect men.  These behaviors are often about trying to meet a need, whether that need is experiencing intimacy, closeness, or managing and redirecting uncomfortable feelings.  Intimacy and vulnerability can be challenging for most men, and sometimes these behaviors are substitutes for those needs and an escape from complex and uncomfortable feelings.  
  • Anger is an emotion that can be the mask for so many different things for men.  Understanding and regulating anger while addressing its true cause is essential for men in their personal life, their relationships, their professional life, and for their own sense of emotional well-being. 
  • Women often have support in their friendships, and conversations about emotional dimensions are, more often, a part of those friendships.  Men do not often discuss these things in their social circles, and it perpetuates the isolation that men can experience.   Men experience the same complex emotions that women do, and learning new ways to identify, accept, and respond to their own emotional life is vital to improving men’s health.   

      Signs of depression in men may look different than in women. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

When we think about depression, we often think about sadness and hopelessness, of inactivity and lack of interest.  But depression in men can look very different.  The difference in what it looks like, coupled with decreased access to mental health care, may account for why more men aren’t diagnosed and properly treated for depressive disorders.  

Men suffering with depression can demonstrate anger, irritability, or argumentativeness.  This may not typically resemble the familiar signs of depression.  Depression in men can present as weight gain or weight loss, substance use, drinking, or risky behaviors.  It can affect sexual performance and intimacy in relationships.  Because men typically do not discuss these types of issues, they may start overworking or become aggressive.   Men want to “do”. They want to do something about the issue, and many times are simply trying to figure that out alone, and these behaviors are their attempts to cope.  Men generally externalize these problems and that reflects an internal problem, one that can be addressed with the right tools and skills.  It’s far easier with help.  

For lots of men, overworking is an issue. Let’s talk about men and burnout. In psychology today, I read “with longer working hours becoming the norm since the Coved pandemic, it is no surprise that burnout is becoming a problem for men worldwide.” What are your thoughts on this and what can men do to protect themselves from burnout? 

Burnout is an indication that prolonged stress hasn’t been addressed, and it leads to physical and emotional exhaustion. It can affect motivation and can create a sense of things “being hard to care about”.   Not addressing chronic burnout can lead to more severe problems for men, including some of the things we have discussed previously.  It can seem hard to integrate new practices into the day-to-day routine, but there are some effective ways of addressing burnout: 

1) Prioritize down time-spend time resting, walking, or talking with family.  Use moments of down rime to connect with the people and the things in life that matter and find ways to laugh and enjoy breaks by eliminating unnecessary stressors and activities.   

2) meditation-meditation can seem like mystical and confusing practice, and most people don’t meditate simply because they “don’t know how.” There are thousands of guided meditations available online, and specific topics can be found. Look for meditations on stress and make a daily practice of listening to those.  Meditation can help being focus and awareness, and if practiced over time can help increase calm.  

3) journal-men often think about what we feel, but don’t talk about what we feel. Journaling can provide a space for men to get thoughts and feelings in front of them to consider.  Journaling can help us process emotions and notice patterns that we may can change.  

4) Social support-involve loved ones and friends in seeking support. Inviting people into our thoughts and feelings can be uncomfortable, but asking for support can provide relief from the pressures of stress, and being vulnerable can strengthen the relationships we have.   The more we do what may, initially, feel uncomfortable, the more we can change our responses to stress.  

What can we do to support the men in our lives?

By shifting the messages that we give to men.  That can start with our children. Are we creating space for boys to talk about their feelings, and are we nurturing those qualities in ways that help them have healthy beliefs around expressing those feelings?     It’s easy to forget that the roles men are expected to play are sometimes the weight on their shoulders, so continually invite men into the conversation.  This may be a process, but don’t stop trying.  

It can sound like:

  • “Hey, I have noticed you have been quiet lately, and I want you to know I see all the things you do. I see how hard you try.  
  • I want you to know that you can talk to me, and that you aren’t alone. 

Continually invite men into these types of conversations, with the hope that more of us will start accepting the invitation.

William Laird is a therapist at Modern Therapy and Wellness in New Orleans. Will is a therapist, a musician and a father. Will practices meditation and writes as a form of self-care. He has experience in the areas of grief, substance abuse, anxiety, stress and relationships. You can schedule an appointment with him in person in our New Orleans office or virtually anywhere in Louisiana. Click here to read more about William Laird or to book an appointment.

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