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This Meme Literally Won’t Get Men Into Therapy

An easy punchline exacerbates the friction between masculinity and mental health

The internet is saturated with a variety of takes, jokes and anecdotes that fall into the encompassing genre of “Ugh, MEN!” content. These posts are typically designed for maximum virality — curt generalizations, too sweeping not to notice — but often seem to derive from a specific shitty dude. That is, they are subtweets disguised as gender theory. When someone wants to list the potential “red flags” on bros’ bookshelves, or complain that guys insult astrology, or diagnose all men with emotional constipation, you can tell that one man in particular has really pissed them off, inspiring this hopefully relatable capsule summary.

The latest mutation of the trend has given us a popular memetic phrase: “Men will literally [insert action] instead of going to therapy.” The idea is to set men’s alleged resistance to introspection against the ridiculous and destructive behaviors they are more than happy to continue and rationalize. BuzzFeed, the ultimate aggregator of “Ugh, MEN!” tweets, kicked off 2021 with a list of some high-engagement favorites; some of the things men will do instead of going to therapy include “start a new workout routine,” “invent Facebook,” “join 10 improv teams” and “learn everything about ancient Rome.”

The swipes are fair enough, even if we can’t say for certain that Mark Zuckerberg has declined to see a psychiatrist, though you notice the tension between earnest, personal resentment and idle riffing, as the format is ripe for referential humor: the myth of Sisyphus, The Lord of the Rings, the Christopher Nolan magician movie and Santa Claus himself all fit the bill for therapy-averse dudes. Already we find ourselves in the terminal phase of the idea, with brands like the convenience store chain Kum & Go taking a flimsy stab at it:

I don’t think it’s unfair to say that this tweet is completely meaningless. It’s a Mad Libs approach to social media: Just say the thing that everyone else is saying, but substitute your thing for variable X. And it’s not only corporations wielding the slogan this way; it’s everyone who wants easy likes. What’s more disconcerting than such hackery is the punchline, which gains the power of stereotype by repetition. Men are hardwired to avoid counseling, everyone knows that!

Anything they do that is not therapy, moreover, is in direct opposition to mental health care. It’s an unfortunate simplification of a real issue — men are less likely to seek this kind of help — that elides factors like out-of-pocket cost and lack of access. The research also shows that psychotherapy as a discipline has lagged in tailoring its approach to male patients, and that men on the whole have different coping strategies than women, and may be better served by, for example, support groups than one-on-one sessions with a practitioner. To put a finer point on it: Therapy as we think of it these days is not a magic solution for every bad man. Far from it.

A real danger that comes with casually implying that talk therapy is some cure-all refused by fully half the population is gradual erosion of the truth: Its effectiveness has always been up for debate, many are well served by alternatives and the way that we have weaponized the call to the couch — trying to shame individuals or entire demographics into booking an appointment — has heightened the stigma of mental illness rather than erased it.

At the same time, the medical establishment has arguably pathologized the sensitivities of younger generations in what amounts to a media-driven moral panic. Overuse of therapeutic language, for one, detracts from “the seriousness of actually having depression or anxiety,” writes Rachel Patla, a practicing counselor in Toms River, New Jersey. Instead of addressing the conditions that might be successfully treated in therapy, we are focused on the failure to go as a toxic trait in itself. And cute as it is to imagine a utopia where every last man has conquered his worst impulses by digging deep with a licensed professional for an hour each week, this ignores negative results.

Yes, because it’s my job, I’m giving undue weight to a played-out meme that has come to the brink of semantic collapse and is unlikely to irk us much longer. Still, jokes flourish from impressions we take as pseudo-facts. If you really want to get men to therapy, it could be counterproductive to tell them they’re naturally disposed to reject the option, especially when they want to go but can’t for one or more of the countless reasons that keep those in need from necessary mental health services.

Turning that crisis into a gender-essentialist trope helps nobody, and surely not the boys who remain silent under repressive notions of masculinity, or finally reach out to find that the system is unable to render the appropriate aid. In this context, the false binary of “therapy or something else” quickly dissolves, and whatever a man is doing to stabilize may be a last recourse. He deserves practical options — not blame for his desperation.