New psychological guidelines seek to redefine masculinity to improve men's well-being

In counseling men, Dr. Barbara Critton-Green, a licensed clinical psychologist with a private practice in Merrillville and an affiliation with Methodist Hospitals, creates a safe zone. 

Men are expected to be strong, silent types. We see it in movies, novels and heritage.

Feeling and showing emotions generally is looked down upon as a sign of weakness or vulnerability. Boys have been raised to stare down pain as a rite of passage. 

A policy issued in August by the American Psychological Association concludes that those traditional male characteristics are harmful to men in everyday life.

The report, “Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men,” a compilation of several research studies conducted by the APA, provides new views for practitioners to treat male patients.

“By the time that men decide to visit and discuss what’s going on in their life, they have frequently come to the realization that they have an issue to deal with,” says Barbara Critton-Green, a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Merrillville and an affiliation with Methodist Hospitals. “That helps to get past the initial resistance of opening up and discussing various topics.”

The APA report shares that some traditional ideas of masculinity can harm a man's mental and physical health.

Age matters too. “Males between age 20 and 40 are more open to the idea of discussing feelings of anxiety and fear,” Critton-Green says. “Those over 40 are sometimes more resistant at first.”

She says it’s a matter of putting the patient at ease. “Men are very reluctant to share if they don’t feel safe and somewhat secure, especially sharing feelings of fear, insecurity and anxiety” — the main reasons men seek help.

The APA guidelines have been in the works since 2005 so are not a direct response to the #MeToo movement. Rather, the report states, the intention of the guidelines is to “help men and boys lead happy, healthy lives.”

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“Just like women, men need a safe place,” Critton-Green says. “At work, there may be a large amount of competition, causing stress and insecurity. Then, at home, they may feel reluctant to share their concerns because they believe that their role is to be the stoic rock.”

That’s where a man’s support system plays a major role, she says. “Family and friends can help if they approach it the right way.” She suggests avoiding “you should” and instead saying “I notice a change — maybe being upset more — are you OK?”

“Let them say they’re not OK,” she says.

The therapist should then take a pragmatic approach.

“I talk in terms of trying something new just to see if it helps, never saying we are going to reconfigure your world,” Critton-Green says. “Each effort is a trial, until he can see the difference.”

She has found that approach, cognitive behavior therapy, works well with men. “Men are problem solvers. Once they really see there’s a problem, they’re ready to fix it.”

The APA report notes that men have higher suicide rates, have more cardiovascular disease, and are lonelier as they age. The new guidelines are an attempt to help men expand their emotional repertoire to address these issues.

Getting the message out to men that they’re adaptable, emotional and capable of engaging outside traditional masculinity norms is the intent. If psychologists and counselors can support men in separating from rules that don’t help them, the effects could be beneficial for them and their support system.

Whether it’s a result of the new guidelines, Critton-Green says she has had more men scheduling appointments. “It’s always a good thing for anyone, male or female, to reach out if they feel they have a need to talk,” she says. “The biggest hurdle isn’t vulnerability, it’s loneliness. You don’t have to deal with it alone, whatever it is.”

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