By Matthew Solan
Harvard Health Blog
Speaking for my gender, there are two qualities that define most men: We seldom like to ask for help, and we do not like to talk about our feelings. Combining the two — asking for help about our feelings — is the ultimate affront to many men’s masculinity.
We like to think of ourselves as strong, problem-solver types. But when it comes to emotional and mental issues, men need to quit trying to bottle up their feelings and tough it out, says Darshan Mehta, M.D., M.P.H., medical director of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. “Your mental health is equally as important as your physical health. Not addressing negative feelings can carry over to all aspects of your life and have a profound impact.”
When to see a therapist
Depression is the most common reason men should seek professional help. Many life situations — jobs, relationships — can trigger its trademark symptoms, such as prolonged sadness, lack of energy, and a constant feeling of stress. For older men, it can also be brought on by financial anxiety about retirement, the death of a spouse or friend, or even the loss of independence, like losing the ability to drive. Left unchecked, these feelings could cause other health problems, such as rapid weight loss, insomnia, declining libido, and changes in memory. They may even lead to destructive behavior like alcohol or opioid dependence.
“While men may recognize these changes when they occur, they may not know the root cause, or if they do, what they can do about it,” says Mehta. This is when a therapist can lend a hand — or ear. “A therapist can help identify the source of your problems and then help resolve them,” he adds.
How to find a therapist
First, talk with your doctor about your situation, how you feel, and your symptoms. He or she will no doubt know therapists who can help with your specific issues. There are other places to start besides your primary care doctor, too. For example, many employee health care plans offer confidential help lines where you can ask questions and find therapists in your network. Another source is the National Alliance on Mental Illness Helpline (1-800-950-6264).
There are many kinds of professionals who offer many different types of therapy. Their individual approaches are based on their particular training and experience. The main ones include:
Psychiatrist. A doctor with a medical degree who can prescribe medication. He or she often helps with more severe issues, such as major depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.
Psychologist. A professional who has a Ph.D. or a Psy.D. in clinical psychology. He or she can treat a full range of emotional and psychological issues, such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse, but in most states cannot prescribe medication.
Licensed Professional Counselor. He or she has a master’s degree plus 2,000 hours of supervised psychotherapy experience. This type of mental health professional focuses on the problems of everyday living, like stress and anxiety, relationship conflicts, and mild depression.
Clinician Nurse Specialist. Like psychiatrists, he or she can prescribe medication. This type of professional works either independently or in collaboration with a supervising physician.
Licensed Social Worker/Licensed Clinical Social Worker/Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker. These mental health professionals assess and treat people living with mental illness and substance abuse issues. By providing group therapy, outreach, crisis intervention programs, and social rehabilitation, social workers help to ease clients back into their communities and daily lives. Clinical social workers provide care through numerous avenues, including hospitals, family service agencies and organizations like the U.S. Veteran’s Administration.
What to expect
Your therapist should help you establish goals of care and then outline a strategy to meet them. This may include a combination of therapy during regular sessions as well as “homework” to follow in between visits. Weekly visits are typical. Yours may be more or less frequent than that depending on how you respond to the therapy. After your initial treatment sessions, you might return periodically for “booster” visits to prevent a future relapse.
Do not give up if you do not feel a strong connection with the first therapist you try, says Mehta. “Try someone else and do not get discouraged. The goal is to find the right person who can guide you.” While therapy may feel awkward at first, most men soon recognize its value, he adds. “Once they make that connection with a therapist, they are quite receptive to therapy and welcome what it can offer.”
(Matthew Solan is the executive editor of Harvard Men’s Health Watch.)