Do All Men Need Therapy?
If you have an account on Twitter you have probably noticed that a lot of women have an unhealthy obsession with the idea that all or most men should be in therapy.
Here is a small selection of recent posts: “I want society to normalize men going to therapy”, “men are so difficult, get therapy”, “all men need therapy”, “Men need therapy….”, “men, hardcore music is not your therapy; it’s just a coping mechanism. please go to therapy.”
An especially egregious example comes from the writer and actress Michelle Law:
Men: I’m big into self improvement!
Women: Are you getting therapy?
Men: I’ve read Mark Manson and Pirsig’s work—
Women: Are you getting therapy?
Men: I’m hitting the gym five times a week—
Women: Are you getting therapy?
Men: Have great chats with my female friends—
You might think the man who is trying to be more literate, healthy and sociable is the good guy here and the monomaniacal scold is the figure of fun. But I promise that Law meant it to be the other way around.
Now, I hear you. You can find people saying almost anything on social media. But to illustrate the popularity of this meme, consider that Vox published an article which began like this:
In 2020, I am vowing to only date men committed to prioritizing their emotional and mental health. If he doesn’t go to therapy, I’m not interested.
This woman, Shanita Hubbard, has the perfect right to make her own decisions about who to date (as do the men who meet her). But is going to therapy the only way to prioritize one’s emotional and mental health? It can be a useful – indeed, invaluable – tool for many depressed, traumatized or otherwise troubled people. But everyone?
According to a Quartz article from 2018 —yes, everyone. Sofia Barrett-Ibarria writes—under the headline “Every Man Should See A Therapist”:
Even for men who aren’t in crisis or experiencing emotional trauma but have the means, seeing a therapist can be incredibly beneficial—for them, for their partners, and I’d argue, society as a whole.
Now, again, I do not think there is anything wrong with going to therapy. How much shame is attached to the practice seems debatable, two decades after The Sopranos first aired, but needless to say, if you are put off from seeing a therapist by embarrassment you should resist that feeling, and if you are attempting to impose that embarrassment on others you should stop.
With that said, resisting the stigmatization of the act of going to therapy does not excuse stigmatizing people who prefer not to go. There are some decisions that we make for our health that are undeniably beneficial. If I announced that I was abstaining from sunlight, for example, or from foods that contain Vitamin C, I could hardly complain if people decided I was eccentric. One does not have to be Thomas Szasz, however, to observe that therapy can be not just unhelpful but actively harmful.
A paper by Michael Linden and Marie-Luise Schermuly-Haupt in World Psychiatry argued that for a minority of patients, therapy can lead to…
…negative consequences [which] concern not only symptoms, like an increase in anxiety, or course of illness, like enduring false memories, but also negative changes in family, occupation or general adjustment in life.
Yet this kind of glib discourse annoys me not just because of its explicit demands but because of its veiled reductionism. The idea that all men hide their chronic insecurities behind a mask of frigid stoicism – only allowing them to appear in bursts of violent aggression – is absurdly hyperbolic. But to the extent that it is true, the blanket recommendation of therapy is comparable to suggesting that people in a compromised apartment block wear hard hats.
In a world where men are finding it more difficult to meet romantic partners, sustain relationships, make friends, hold down jobs, avoid addiction, et cetera it is hardly surprising if mental health suffers, and if one thinks this can be explained by their internal features more than technological change, rampant fatherlessness, lost civic institutions, economic precarity and a supply-side boom in cheap, hard drugs that is absurdly childish. Hubbard’s article even mentions that a “positive social support system” can be valuable without pausing to wonder why many men do not have one.
The very idea that men are “emotionally stifled”, as Barrett-Ibarria claims, deserves unpacking. It can be true, of course. We have all heard of people who have broken down or killed themselves without exhibiting previous signs of distress. But as I have written elsewhere, some men can also make use of “rational coping” effectively – and while Barrett-Ibarria faults men for being “afraid to sit with their own feelings”, this can itself lead to unhealthy “depressive rumination”.
Curiously, architects of “men need therapy” discourse not only think that men don’t talk enough about their feelings, they also think that men talk about their feelings too much. Now, in fairness, I can think somebody doesn’t drink enough and that they drink too much alcohol. It is at least possible that someone doesn’t talk enough about their feelings with their friends, and their family, and their colleagues, and their boss, but dumps it all onto their partner or spouse. Still, there is in discourse around “emotional labour” a sense of wanting it both ways, of wanting men to be open and sensitive and of not wanting to hear a lot about their inner life. Barrett-Ibarria writes about a man who spilled his guts out on a first date and concludes:
Go on dates for the fun and witty banter, but go to a therapist for help—mixing the two won’t do either of us any good.
Sure, you probably don’t want to get too introspective on a first date (or a second, or a third). But meaningful relationships – between friends, or family, or romantic partners – absolutely involve some heavy talk about one’s fears, and one’s stress, and one’s desires, and one’s goals. If anybody thinks that women do not do this at least as much as men then, well, we have known very different people. And if anybody thinks these conversations can be quietly secluded in a part of life named “therapy” they have a very frivolous outlook on human life.
Again, because I know it is a good old-fashioned sport online to blatantly misread people, I am not saying it is bad for men to be in therapy or that there are no men who would benefit from being in it. What I am saying is that the push to drive men in general into therapy displays no understanding or desire to understand men, but haughty indifference to the struggles many face and to the nature of their personalities.
If you hear the echo of Andrei Snezhnevsky, the psychiatrist who gave Brezhnev pseudo-scientific justification for imprisoning dissidents under the guise of mental health concerns, I can hardly call you a crackpot. To his bogus diagnosis of “sluggish schizophrenia” we may yet be forced to add “toxic masculinity.”
Ben Sixsmith is a British writer living in Poland who has written for Quillette, the Spectator USA, the Catholic Herald, Public Discourse, and Unherd.