How Psychologists Lost Men
If psychologists want to encourage men to seek help, they must make a better argument.
In August 2018, the American Psychological Association released “APA Guidelines for the Psychological Practice with Men and Boys.” In January, an article in the APA’s flagship magazine and a subsequent tweet thrust that document into the public eye.
APA was unprepared for the response. The guidelines are written for academics, not for the general public. In addition, the document seems to lean to the left. In these times — when professional conversations are overheard, repeated, and interpreted by the public — psychologists, physicians, lawyers, and others must understand and prepare for how their “insider jargon” and political reputation might derail vital conversations.
Without a plain-language explanation of the guidelines, the public is left with the media’s interpretation of them. In these divisive times, media reports are predictably politically-skewed. Progressive-leaning outlets praised the guidelines for taking aim at “toxic masculinity”.
Conservative-leaning publications decried them for promoting the idea that all, but especially white, men are privileged sexual-predators-in-waiting.
Public comments on reports of the guidelines show that many are openly hostile to “blanket observations” about men and to psychologists’ attempt to “womansplain.” The Onion ran a piece entitled, “Woman Didn’t Know Progress On Toxic Masculinity Would Turn Boyfriend Into Such A Weepy Little Pansy.” Psychologists let the media hijack its message and turn men away from actions that could make them healthier. Worse, our expertise became a punchline.
By not controlling the message, psychologists have missed a valuable opportunity. If you get past the dense language and the apparent political skew (to be fair, men are called out for being privileged in the first paragraph), there are inklings of a viable, evidence-based argument.
As experts in human behavior, psychologists are uniquely positioned to help build a better world. But we must remember that we are part of that world—neither separate from nor better than it—and let people hear what we know without lecturing them or appearing like instruments of the State. We need trustworthy messages on which all of us can take decisive and effective action.
We need a clear and concise statement of the urgent problems men face. While psychologists value painstakingly precise and carefully-referenced statements, the public wants straightforward, transparent language. Our guidance should read like a novel, not like a contract to buy a house.
We need guidelines which are apolitical and rely on facts. The public needs psychologists who are politically savvy enough to understand how their statements could be misused. Men die by suicide more frequently than women, despite making fewer attempts. Men have higher rates of cardiovascular problems and substance abuse. Boys are expelled from school more frequently. Jails house more men than women. If psychologists stick to indisputable facts like these, people will listen.
We need a clear, evidence-based plan for change. When deciphered, the guidelines are admirable aspirations, but they are light on clear guidance. The document states these guidelines are intended to be suggestions, not mandates, and recommends that psychologists should use their judgment in applying them. To the public—and to many psychologists—that reads, “Any resemblance this has to policy is purely coincidental.” If psychologists want to be taken seriously, we must embrace and promote an effective, relatable, actionable plan for healthier living.
We must highlight strength. When the guidelines appear to call men out for privilege or malign qualities like stoicism, adventurousness, and achievement, psychologists lose part of our target audience. Our statements should help the public better wield the power they already have, not criticize them for having it. We should talk about the strength which comes from respecting boundaries. We should talk about part of a man’s job is caring for his own health and well-being. We should celebrate fathers for their involvement in their kids’ lives. We should respect the incredible courage shown by men who ask for help.
Most of all, psychologists should embrace and model the change we want to see in the world. People will come with us, but only when we respect them enough to talk to them instead of at them.