The Stigma of Men and Therapy

Written by Robert Daylin Brown, Ed.D

In 1995 at twenty-two years old, I began working at my very first full-time job. I was a teacher working with a non-profit organization that helped kids who had been kicked out of school earn their G.E.D. I was the teacher of a group of kids on probation, most of whom were gangbangers, and my particular school site was located in the basement of a Baptist church in the heart of Compton, California.

It was a tough job for my very first full-time employment. I recall Fernando, the seventeen-year-old kid with “Eighteenth Street” tattooed in Roman numerals across his forehead. I asked him to sit down, and he walked slowly up to me, our noses touching, and he whispered “Make me.” I recall Omar, the small and quiet kid who was being followed by a car one morning while walking to class. As he walked through our parking lot, the car windows rolled down, and the front passenger began shooting at Omar as he ran toward us, screaming and waving with his arms outstretched to us at the classroom door.

As you can imagine, incidents like these stayed with me and were stored in my body.

But, after working there for several months, something began to happen to me. I started to dread the long commute. I would exit the freeway with a heavy sigh. I would drive past rundown buildings and empty lots feeling the weight of despondency on my shoulders. And I would enter the makeshift classroom and transfer all that negative energy to my students.

After a year working there, another incident happened. I arrived at the classroom one morning, walked to my desk, sat down, and just stared blankly ahead of me, frozen in my chair. Students would ask me for help, and I just ignored them, staring at the wall. One of the students went to get the secretary to help me. The secretary tried talking with me, but I ignored her also and stared blankly ahead at the wall. I was frozen. It’s not that I couldn’t move. It was more like I didn’t want to move, as if the will to move or talk just disappeared.

I remember everything as plain as day. I remember people trying to talk with me. I remember the room. I remember the students and their faces. But I didn’t move. I just sat frozen in my chair for hours.

All those years ago, I didn’t know what happened to me. I didn’t have a name for it. I just knew I froze. Back then, I didn’t know it was depression. I didn’t know what depression looked like for me. Like many men, I had sexist stereotypes of depression, thinking it was something that happened to women that caused them to watch sad movies and eat ice cream in their pajamas.
Believing that depression exclusively happens to women is not only sexist, but it is also dangerous. One of the problems with this sexist idea is that it perpetuates the stereotype of the unhinged, irrational woman. This could lead to all sorts of negative outcomes such as shutting down women’s voices, failing to see women as fully formed human beings, and other dangerous misogynistic behaviors.

Another problem with the idea that depression only happens to women is that it prevents men from getting the help they need. I imagine that many men will do what I did years ago when I froze in the classroom. Rather than calling it depression or a depressive episode, I shrugged it off as a bad day, went home, watched TV, then returned to work the next day as if nothing happened. Men are told more frequently than women to “man up” and “walk it off” and “get over it”. These “like a man” phrases don’t do us any good. They stifle emotions, they stifle vulnerability, and they stifle healing.

It took another twenty years before I decided to enter therapy. And once I did, I learned to open up, be more vulnerable, and adopt strategies that help with self-regulation.

Despite the numerous benefits of therapy, many men still hesitate to seek help. The stigma surrounding men and therapy can be attributed to a couple of factors. First, there is the cultural expectation that men should be strong and independent, and seeking help is seen as a sign of weakness. Secondly, there is a lack of representation of men in therapy. The majority of therapists are women, and the majority of therapy clients are also women. This can make men feel like therapy is not for them.

Unfortunately, this stigma can have serious consequences for men’s mental health. Many men suffer in silence and they can develop unhealthy coping mechanisms such as alcoholism, substance abuse, violent aggressive behavior, or self-harm. Men struggle with depression and anxiety, and it often presents itself in unique ways that leave their struggles unresolved.

We need to normalize therapy for men. We need more male therapists and more representation of men in therapy in popular media. We need to encourage men to be vulnerable because the stigma surrounding men and therapy can be detrimental to men’s mental health.

For more information on trauma and healing please visit our resources on our website.