Not seeking treatment for mental-health issues is a mistake.
Kevin M. Shafer struggled with depression and anxiety for more than 20 years but resisted getting professional help, even after he started teaching and researching in a mental-health field. “I was too stubborn and too prideful about my masculine self-reliance,” he says.
His biggest regret about not getting help sooner is the negative impact his challenges had on his family. His wife worried constantly that he might take his own life or leave and never come back. His kids saw an angry dad but didn’t know why. “I can’t imagine how hard that is for a small child—to wonder why your dad is mad all the time and to constantly think it’s your fault,” says Shafer.
When he did eventually see a counselor, it made a big difference. Today he says he is far less anxious, struggles less often with depression, and is a better father and husband. Now an assistant professor of social work at BYU, he and his student Douglas M. Wendt (BS ’09, MSW ’15) researched male attitudes toward seeking help for depression. As published in the journal Health & Social Work, they discovered that although men often recommend that others seek help, especially informal help such as talking to a friend or a spouse, they themselves tend not to seek help—and especially not professional help.
Shafer says that if men can understand and overcome the barriers that keep them from enlisting professional help, counseling can lead to increased happiness for them and their loved ones.
Stoic, Silent, and Self-Reliant
Why do so many men avoid seeking help? Shafer points first to the norms about masculinity that society teaches boys from an early age—that it’s not manly to need or ask for help. “Boys are taught to be emotionally stoic and self-reliant and silent about their feelings. These norms don’t lend themselves to help-seeking behavior,” he says. In an LDS context, he’s observed that “the only time it’s okay for a Mormon man to cry is at the pulpit.”
Additionally, men tend to recognize that women are more likely to seek counseling and many presume that counseling is therefore more oriented toward women. Men, he says, don’t want what they assume will be a feminized model of therapy.
“There’s some truth to this,” says Shafer. Mental-health researchers and especially social workers, who focus on marginalized populations, have studied women more than men.
Third, Shafer says some men will discount therapy globally based on one bad experience. Already predisposed to resist counseling, if they don’t get good help on their first try, they’ll often give up on it. “If we have a bad experience with a medical doctor, most of us conclude that it’s just one doctor and we try another one. But with therapists, [men are] more likely to paint them all with the same brush. If one therapist is bad, they must all be bad.”
But Shafer says an unfolding public conversation about the mental health of men is beginning to change perceptions. In 2015 actor and wrestler Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson publicly disclosed his experience with depression and acknowledged that his failure to ask for help was a mistake.
In Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s (BS ’65, MS ’66) recent general conference talk “Like a Broken Vessel,” the Apostle spoke about his own bout with depression. Shafer says having someone in a position of authority speak candidly about mental health is important for Latter-day Saints. We’re starting to see this conversation, says Shafer, and that’s good. But, he adds, “we need more.”
Further destigmatizing therapy are public-health campaigns, like the Utah Health Department’s recent launch of a website called “Man Therapy” (mantherapy.org), which approaches male mental health with humor and candor. Billing itself as “therapy from the creators of pork chops and fighter jets,” it offers a “20-Point Head Inspection” questionnaire that yields customized advice, including recommendations for professional help.
As the conversation unfolds, Shafer hopes men will grasp that “the shame is not in having a problem but in not getting the help you need. You should feel okay saying, ‘I have a problem, and I need help with that problem—help beyond talking to my wife or my friend or my bishop.’”
Spouses can play an important role in helping men overcome these barriers. Shafer believes women are more likely to have an influence if they approach the topic by emphasizing the impact on others. “They can say things like, ‘This is something that’s affecting me and our children, and it’s important. These are things I’ve noticed. There are people who can help with these issues.’”
Perhaps the biggest influence, he says, can come from other men—friends, brothers, and fathers—who open up about getting help themselves. They can tell about their own positive experiences with therapists or share what has helped them cope.
At the very least, Shafer says friends and family should avoid minimizing issues or stigmatizing professional help by telling a man to just pray harder or go to the temple or serve more. Those are good things, he says, “but they aren’t necessarily good mental-health treatments.”
Last, says Shafer, LDS men can look to the Church’s approach to mental-health treatment, which includes a robust therapy program in LDS Family Services. In addition, BYU offers programs in social work, psychology, counseling psychology, and marriage and family therapy, and the campus provides psychological services to students in need. “The Church has invested a lot of money in mental health. That should tell us that this is something our leaders think is really important. They don’t see it as a weakness of faith or anything like that. They want people to get help.”
Stopping the Spiral
Shafer says professional help is important for both men and women with mental-health challenges, but he notes that men’s issues tend to manifest themselves in ways that can be far more dangerous. Where women tend to turn inward with depression or anxiety, men may externalize their mental issues through anger and risky behaviors like drinking, substance abuse, and violence. “This is a major public-health concern because a man’s unwillingness to get help can so profoundly affect his family, his coworkers—all the people he interacts with on a daily basis,” he says.
For Shafer, whose anxiety and depression were making the normal stressors of life overwhelming, professional help has been a godsend. “Without professional help, I couldn’t manage,” says Shafer. “I lived with the constant possibility that the next challenge would throw me into a depressive spiral that would take weeks or months to get out of. I still have depression. I will always have depression. But I’ve become much more capable of handling it and the issues that can lead to it. Professional help truly has changed my life for the better.”
Making Therapy Work for You
For men who feel reluctant to pursue therapy for mental-health challenges, finding the right therapist can make all the difference. Here, BYU assistant professor of social work Kevin M. Shafer gives tips for evaluating an experience with therapy.
• Start with recommendations. Remember you don’t have to stay with the first therapist you try.
• A good therapist lets you talk and helps you find your own solutions. If a therapist is doing most of the talking, you may need another therapist.
• You should feel comfortable with the therapist and feel that he or she is not judgmental and not confrontational. You should feel understood.
• A good therapist is invested in your well-being. He or she cares how you’re doing and if you’re getting better.
• Keep in mind that therapy is not a quick fix. Sometimes people get worse before they get better. Good therapy churns up old events and feelings that are not comfortable.
• The gender of a therapist is personal preference. Some men feel more comfortable talking to other men, while others feel more comfortable talking to a woman.
• Pay attention to red flags, such as something making you feel uncomfortable, disclosure of personal information by the therapist, or inappropriate touch. Trust your instincts.
• Choose someone who understands and respects your values. That doesn’t mean your therapist must be LDS, but the therapist should encourage you to talk about the spiritual aspects of your life and be willing to learn about your values to better help you.