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  • Dr. Shane Owens

How psychologists lost men

If psychologists want to encourage men to seek help, they must make a better argument.


In August 2018, the American Psychological Association—an organization that represents US psychologists and educates the public about psychology and behavioral health—released “APA Guidelines for the Psychological Practice with Men and Boys.” Earlier this month, an article in their flagship magazine and a subsequent tweet thrust that document into the public eye.


Reports on public reception of the guidelines indicate that the APA was unprepared for the response. The guidelines are written in wordy, weighty academic language and not for general audiences. In addition, the document can easily be interpreted to lean to the left. In these times—when professional conversations are overheard, repeated, and interpreted by the public—psychologists, physicians, lawyers, and others must understand and prepare for how their “insider jargon” and political reputation might derail vital conversations.


Without a plain-language explanation of the guidelines, the public is left with the media’s interpretation of them. In these divisive times, the reporting is predictably politically-skewed. Progressive-leaning outlets praise the guidelines for taking aim at “toxic masculinity”. Conservative-leaning publications decry them for promoting the idea that all, but especially white, men are privileged sexual-predators-in-waiting. Public comment on the reporting show that many are openly hostile to “blanket observations” about men and to psychologists’ attempt to “womansplain.” The Onion ran a piece entitled, “Woman Didn’t Know Progress On Toxic Masculinity Would Turn Boyfriend Into Such A Weepy Little Pansy.” Psychologists let the media hijack its message and turn men away from actions that could make them healthier. Worse, our expertise has become a punchline.


By not controlling the message, psychologists have missed a valuable opportunity. If you get past the dense language and the apparent political skew (to be fair, men are called out for being privileged in the first paragraph), there is an evidence-based argument for change.


As experts in human behavior, psychologists are uniquely positioned to change the world. But we must remember that we are part of that world—neither separate from nor better than it—and let people hear what we know without lecturing them or appearing like instruments of the State. We need trustworthy messages on which all of us can take decisive and effective action.


We need a clear and concise statement of the problem. While psychologists value painstakingly precise and carefully-referenced statements, the public wants straightforward, transparent language. Our guidance should read like a novel, not like a contract to buy a house.


We need statements which are apolitical and rely on facts. The public needs psychologists who are politically savvy enough to understand how their statements could be misused. Men die by suicide more frequently than women, despite making fewer attempts. Men have higher rates of cardiovascular problems and substance abuse. Boys are expelled from school more frequently. Jails house more men than women. If we stick to indisputable evidence, psychologists can make a more effective argument.


We need a clear, evidence-based plan for change. When deciphered, the guidelines are admirable aspirations, but they are light on clear guidance. The document states these guidelines are intended to be suggestions, not mandates, and recommends that psychologists should use their judgment in applying them. To the public—and to many psychologists—this reads, “Any resemblance this has to policy is purely coincidental.” Psychologists must provide an effective, relatable road map to change, not lectures or prescriptions.


We must highlight strength. When the guidelines appear to call men out for privilege or malign qualities like adventurousness and achievement, psychologists lose part of our target audience. Our statements should help the public better wield the power they already have, not criticize them for having it. We should talk about the strength which comes from respecting boundaries. We should talk about how caring for his health is part of a man’s job. We should celebrate fathers for their involvement in their kid’s lives. We should respect the incredible courage shown by men who ask for help.


Most of all, psychologists should embrace and model the change we want to see in the world. People will come with us, but only when we respect them enough to talk to them instead of at them.


This piece originally appeared at Smerconish.com.


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© Shane G. Owens, Ph.D., ABPP.