The world would be a better place if more dads went to therapy. But as research shows, older guys often abide by masculine norms that drive them to dismiss counseling. Many of them were taught to keep their feelings to themselves and to solve problems on their own. Asking for help is a sign of weakness in their minds.
Beliefs like these call for deprogramming. Our fathers are suffering from a range of emotional aches — suicide rates globally are higher among older men than in any other demographic group — and they deserve the help their antiquated philosophies are provoking them to resist. But what can you say to someone whose ideas about therapy and mental health have been ingrained for decades longer than you’ve been alive?
Here are a few ideas…
Treat Guys Differently
The whole reason guys clutch onto the masculine norms that keep them out of therapy is because of how society treats them. “Our structural response to men and boys when they’re in pain and anguish isn’t the same as our structural response to women and girls,” says masculinity authority Wizdom Powell, director of the UConn Health Disparities Institute.
But it’s not always as conspicuous as telling men outright that they need to suffer in silence or get over their grief. For instance, calling upon her knowledge of mental health inequities among Black men and boys, Powell says it’s seemingly “more acceptable” for the public to rally behind Black women who need emotional support (and deserve that support, of course) than Black guys who are equally down. “We rarely — rarely — hold space for boys and men who are experiencing psychological distress,” she continues. “If we do, it’s for a very fleeting moment. Then right after that, we expect men to be heroic, brave and to show up, even before they’ve finished their own healing work.”
The goal should be to create mental health support for anyone — no matter their gender identity — who’s suffering from emotional hardship, and we can include men in that by changing how we talk to and about them. Rather than telling a boy to “man up” after he scrapes his knee, we should give him permission to express his emotions. “We start to program our boys very early on, if we’re not careful, to deny their emotional distress,” says Powell. (For example, research shows that mothers expose baby boys to a smaller range of emotions than baby girls, which can result in the development of alexithymia, an inability to recognize feelings.)
Or, rather than expecting men like our dads to soldier on against insurmountable stress, we should create a larger culture of self-care that props them up. That can be as simple as including them in our mass outbursts of support on social media or talking to the men in our lives in more emotional terms to encourage open expression.
Overall, it’s important to keep in mind that your dad learned those unhelpful masculine norms from his environment, so changing that environment is the best way forward. “We as a society are complicit in sustaining these norms,” Powell says. “That’s something we have to shift if we truly want to create a world where boys and men feel like they have radical permission to seek therapy.”
You can also get more personal with your pop. For example, Ronald Levant, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Akron and co-author of The Tough Standard: The Hard Truths About Masculinity and Violence, points to a campaign launched by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): They distributed personal accounts of men from all walks of life who benefited from therapy, and it was a great success — it generated 14 million website views and nearly 5,000 emails and phone calls to their hotlines, which would certainly suggest it reeled in a good number of guys.
In other words, if you can produce an example of another therapy-friendly man (or better yet, hero) who your father can relate to, that could help get the message across. Levant points to star athletes like Kevin Love and Terry Bradshaw, both of whom have been open about their need for therapy and may serve as role models for other guys.
But you know your dad best. If he’s not into sports, surely there are actors, musicians or any number of prolific men out there who can act as positive examples for him.
Suggest Group Therapy
For the same reason, some men are more likely to be open to group therapy. This is because, as that NIMH campaign shows, guys can be more likely to listen to their peers than some strange professional. That said, some men are less open to group therapy. They already don’t feel like sharing their emotions one-on-one, so they’re sure as hell not going to open up to a whole group. But if your dad is a man’s man, this could work.
Because of the ways many older men sometimes perceive therapy — as an admission of weakness — Levant says you could try to flip that narrative. Explain to your dad that seeking therapy requires a lot of courage and is a very manly thing to do. It may seem like a cheap approach that plays on his beliefs, but if it gets him in the door, that can at least be step one.
Reveal How You Feel
In his counseling practice, Levant has noticed that many older men — Boomers in particular — have (or had) flawed relationships with their fathers. Their dads were “closed books” or didn’t pay them much attention. If this applies to your pop, Levant says you can gently remind him of how he felt, and mention that you want a stronger relationship with him than he had with his father. “That really hits home for a lot of guys, because they know how that feels,” he explains.
Improve the System
While encouragement is important, the primary cause of our mental health dilemma is inaccessible care, according to a 2018 study. Twenty-five percent of Americans reported needing to forego daily essentials to pay for treatment. Forty-six percent said they or someone they know had to drive over an hour to see a counselor. And many weren’t sure how to access teletherapy and therapy apps, resources that older guys who aren’t as on social media may be less aware of.
Another problem, according to Powell, is that our mental health system is often ill-prepared to deal with the unique needs of men. Guys express their distress in unique ways — their depression is often perceived as anger or aggressiveness, for instance — which could require a specialized eye. Male therapists are also a minority, which may pose problems for men hoping to see someone like them.
All of which is to say, sure, we can eagerly prepare our dads for therapy, but it’s all for naught if they have nowhere to go or are met with faulty clinicians. These are systemic hurdles that require teamwork between legislators, health-care professionals and society at large, but we can all do our part by at least having the discussion. “Getting them to therapy isn’t just the responsibility of an individual,” Powell explains. “It takes a system — a family, a community, a village to make that possible.”
“We have to build the kind of system that will be welcoming to boys and men before we ask them to take the risk and go,” she continues. “We can’t rightfully say, ‘Well, more men should come,’ when we haven’t built it.”
All of that said, there are already changes being made. There are agencies like Man Therapy and Men’s Therapy Directory, which target guys and provide them with everything they need to know about mental health and therapy — including where to find it. And while many men may not know much about them, teletherapy and therapy apps really are increasing the reach of mental health treatment for the masses.
One of the big struggles now is making older men aware of what’s available for them. So go talk to your dad. It may help.