Open post

Suicide prevention, the Zero Suicide Alliance way.

On November 16th 2017 I was at the House of Commons for the launch of the Harry’s Masculinity Report. I hadn’t known before, but in another part of the Commons, Dr Joe Rafferty was launching the Zero Suicide Alliance.

I introduced myself to Joe and had a brief conversation about what we were both doing. I was really impressed with the training he was proposing, and after taking it myself the next day, after taking the training, I invited Joe to speak at the Male Psychology Conference at UCL the following June

Those who saw Joe speak at the conference in June 2018 will know that he has got a lot of inspiring things to say. But at the core is his work promoting the Zero Suicide Alliance training. I would encourage anybody to take this training. Not only does it appear to me to offer sensible advice (e.g. don’t be afraid to ask someone if they are thinking about suicide) but the training can be taken online and completed in as little as 20 minutes.

The training adopts the London Underground’s ‘see it, say it, sorted’ approach by suggesting ways to:

  • identifying when someone might be suicidal
  • speak out in a supportive way
  • signpost the individual to services or support

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day, so please take the training, if not today then set a time in your diary to do it. The training is free and can be done by following the instructions here.

 

About the author

John Barry is a chartered psychologist and co-founder of the Male Psychology Network and Male Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society (BPS).

 

 

 

Open post

Is drinking in the pub a bad way to deal with stress?

by Dr John Barry

 

Picture this: Tommy goes to the pub with his mates two or three times a week for a pint or two. His wife knows they just joke around and talk football. She thinks going to the pub is a waste of time at best and unhealthy at worst. Tommy says he works hard all day and the pub is a good way to unwind. So who is right? Is the pub good or bad?

 

Although alcohol abuse is around twice as common in men than women, Liddon et al (2017) found that around a quarter of both men and women use drinking as a way of coping with stress. We know that women also deal with stress by talking about their feelings more than men do (Holloway et al, 2018), and men see a therapist less than women do, even when they are suicidal (Kung et al, 2003). Taken together, this suggests some men might tend to over-rely on the banter therapy of Dr Booze when facing emotional problems, thus more prone to getting drunk, externalising their feelings, getting into arguments, and ending up being treated by the prison services rather than the mental health services.

But what about men who drink moderately in the pub, and chat with their friends there? Well it seems this is a different category of behaviour, and there is evidence that moderate social drinking has mental / emotional health benefits.

A couple of recent studies, one from University of Oxford and the other from Glasgow Caledonian University, have good news for social drinkers. Dunbar et al (2017) ran a randomly stratified survey of 2254 UK adults and found that social drinkers tend to have a better support network, and feel more connected with their community. Emslie et al (2013) ran focus groups, and the feedback from 22 middle aged men was that the pub is a useful place where it is acceptable to talk about their feelings and mental health.

These two studies suggest that chatting with friends over a beer in the pub can be a way to prevent everyday stresses from building up. Although banter has got a bad name recently, perhaps this is part of the way that men feel more comfortable with talking about their feelings. Isolated or uncontrolled drinking isn’t healthy, but obviously that’s not what I am talking about here.

In reaching out to men, CALM leave their beer mats in pubs with their contact details. This is a smart move and throws a lifeline to men for whom social drinking isn’t getting rid of their stress, or who are drinking in unhealthy ways. These men might get a lot out of chatting on the CALM helpline, and might find themselves signposted to more traditional types of talking cures.

Perhaps it’s time to seriously reassess the high street pub as not a den of iniquity but a potentially beneficial source of community and social support, a place that facilitates connection with our fellow human beings. To the disinterested observer the pub might seem noisy and unsophisticated, but if the pub is a facilitator of wellbeing then maybe the disinterested observer needs to get a drink, relax, and join in. It’s easy to overlook the benefits of the high street pub, but perhaps we should see its demise as a cause for concern from a community mental health point of view.

 

CALM (campaign against living miserably) can be contacted here https://www.thecalmzone.net/help/get-help/

Find out how to save your local pub from closure http://www.camra.org.uk/pubs

 

About the author

John Barry is a chartered psychologist and co-founder of the Male Psychology Network and Male Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society. Contact john@malepsychology.org.uk

 

References

Dunbar, R. I. M., Launay, J., Wlodarski, R., Robertson, C., Pearce, E., Carney, J., & MacCarron, P. (2017). Functional benefits of (modest) alcohol consumption. Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology, 3(2), 118-133

Emslie, C., Hunt, K., & Lyons, A. (2013). The role of alcohol in forging and maintaining friendships amongst Scottish men in midlife. Health Psychology, 32(1), 33.

Holloway K, Seager M, Barry JA (2018). Are clinical psychologists, psychotherapists and counsellors overlooking the needs of their male clients? Clinical Psychology Forum, July 2018.  Holloway et al 2018 sex differences in therapy author version

Liddon, L. Kingerlee, R. & Barry, J.A. (2017). Gender differences in preferences for psychological treatment, coping strategies, and triggers to help-seekingBritish Journal of Clinical Psychology, doi: 10.1111/bjc.12147.

 

 

 

Open post

Why Male Psychology matters: an evolutionary perspective

by Dr Rebecca Owens & Dr Helen Driscoll, University of Sunderland, UK.

On August 30th 2018, there was a revolutionary step forward in psychology: 71.5% of voters supported the creation of a Male Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society (BPS). It is now one of 19 Sections of the BPS (as well as lots of Divisions, Groups etc), alongside the Psychology of Women and Equalities Section, established 30 years ago as the Psychology of Women Section.

In this article we discuss why the new Male Psychology section is so important, and explain the relevance of Male Psychology from an evolutionary perspective.

 

Why a Male Psychology Section matters

We hear a lot about male privilege – how men supposedly have a status in society which benefits them. Of course there are ways in which this is true, although there are also numerous ways in which society arguably favours women. Both sexes however face particular challenges, which require a gendered approach to effectively understand and address, and which necessitate investment in research. Some of the big issues facing men were discussed at the male psychology conference, and include high suicide rates, mental health issues, and domestic abuse. There is a lack of awareness of the extent to which these issues affect men, and this means that often men have no one who will listen to them and relatively little help or support.

Lack of awareness also means research and understanding is limited, impairing our ability to tackle these issues; the development of a Male Psychology Section is crucial to furthering our understanding of issues facing men.

We believe  ‘toxic masculinity’ is an unfair and unhelpful term. Whilst there are men who behave in ways that are harmful and some of these behaviours can be linked to some aspects of masculinity, to imply that masculinity is toxic is unfair to men, and deflects us from recognising the many positive aspects of masculinity. We hope that the development of a Male Psychology Section will facilitate research and understanding of the positive aspects of masculinity.

 

How evolutionary psychology can provide a framework for the study of male psychology

Evolutionary psychologists examine how the brain and behaviours of modern humans have been shaped by our evolutionary history. The environment in which we evolved was largely very stable, which is why we are adapted to it. Since the agricultural revolution, c10,000 years ago, the environment has been very unstable, changing rapidly. But physically and psychologically we have not changed a great deal because human reproduction is a slow process, and evolution is therefore slow too.

Many of the psychological differences between men and women are due to sex-specific selection pressures in our evolutionary history. This is because the keys to successful reproduction (and therefore passing on genes) were different for men and women. Men had the potential to successfully reproduce by acquiring multiple partners and offspring, whereas women, constrained by pregnancy and lactation, reproduced successfully by investing heavily in a smaller number of offspring. This fundamental difference between men and women has profound implications for psychological sex differences.

It is important to note that these evolved sex differences are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – there is no moral judgment on this, it just is.

To fully understand male psychology, we need to understand how the male brain and behaviour have been shaped by sex-specific selection pressures in the human ancestral environment. This does not need to be the focus of all research, but if all research is informed by this understanding, it will result in a more complete and accurate understanding of male psychology.

Many of the issues that affect men more than women are rooted in our evolutionary past – men are more inclined to take risks than women, which often have negative repercussions, such as substance abuse, homelessness and suicide (in contemporary environments). This is not to say that women cannot be affected by these issues – they are –  but on average, more men are affected by such issues than women.

 

We will blog more about the relevance of evolutionary psychology to Male Psychology in the next few weeks.

 

About the authors

Dr Becci Owens is a Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Sunderland, a Chartered Psychologist, and a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. She is an evolutionary psychologist with a research focus on male psychology and mental health, sex differences in mating behaviours and mating strategies, and body image and modifications.
Email: rebecca.owens@sunderland.ac.uk ; Twitter: @DrBecciOwens

Dr Helen Driscoll is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Sunderland. She gained her BSc (Hons) Psychology degree from Newcastle University and PhD in Psychology from Durham University. Helen is a Chartered Psychologist and a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Her PhD examined sex differences in intrasexual aggression and intimate partner violence from an evolutionary perspective. Helen’s current research interests include sexual behaviour and sexuality, male psychology, dark personality and adult play.

Email: helen.driscoll@sunderland.ac.uk ; Twitter: @mirapiform

 

 

 

Open post

Masculinity means taking control of your mental health

by Dr John Barry

 

Although men take their own lives more than women do, men seek help from therapists less than women do. Clearly this is an important issue for psychologists to address.

The 1990s saw the beginning of interest in the psychological aspects of masculinity. However this body of work created a deficit model of masculinity, with masculine traits seen as problematic socialisations. This view remains prevalent today.

The influential work of Addis & Mahalik (2003) suggested that for men to seek help they need to overcome the masculine values which pressure them to not seek help. According to this view, seeking help means showing emotional vulnerability to others, which is in conflict with masculine ideals, such as being in control of one’s emotions.

This view of masculinity is generally unchallenged in psychology, academia, and the media. It sounds plausible, but does it tell the whole story? The evidence suggests not.

Interviews with men who had experienced depression found that those who redefined help-seeking behaviors as masculine, felt more empowered to deal with all aspects of seeking help they perceived as being under their control (Hernandez et al 2014). For example, they felt more able to seek treatment, choose the right treatment for themselves, and adhere with the treatment programme. This demonstrates that the traditional male script of having mastery and control over one’s emotions (Seager et al, 2014) can be used in a positive, beneficial way. Like any set of values, masculine ideals can be used in a helpful or unhelpful way.

Is this the only evidence that traditional masculinity can have a positive side in dealing with depression? Far from it. A meta-analysis of 34 studies concluded that traditional masculine ideals can offer positive resources for men coping with depression (Krumm et al, 2017). Apart from taking control (as described in the study above by Hernandez et al 2014), studies found that men used traditionally masculine approaches such as physical activities (chopping wood, playing in a rock band, motor biking), reframing depression as a heroic struggle that made them stronger, and reframing help-seeking as active, rational, responsible, and independent action.

Given the above evidence, it makes sense for psychologists today to step away from the deficit model of masculinity, and embrace a more positive view of masculinity (Kiselica & Englar-Carlson, 2006).

 

References

Addis, M. E., & Mahalik, J. R. (2003). Men, masculinity, and the contexts of help seeking. American psychologist, 58(1), 5.

Kiselica, M. S., & Englar-Carlson, M. (2010). Identifying, affirming, and building upon male strengths: The positive psychology/positive masculinity model of psychotherapy with boys and men. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 47(3), 276.

Krumm, S., Checchia, C., Koesters, M., Kilian, R., & Becker, T. (2017). Men’s views on depression: a systematic review and metasynthesis of qualitative research. Psychopathology, 50(2), 107-124.

Seager, M., Sullivan, L., & Barry, J. (2014). Gender-related schemas and suicidality: Validation of the male and female traditional gender scripts questionnaires. New Male Studies, 3(3), 34-54.

Open post

How colour blindness taught me that it’s unwise to be dogmatic about gender issues

by Dr John Barry

Like 8% of men and 0.5% of women, I am colour blind. Being colour blind has a significant impact on Quality of Life (Barry et al, 2017), creating problems in everyday activities such as understanding coloured graphs (in lectures and textbooks) and maps (e.g. the London Underground map).

I was lucky enough to find this out when I first started school. Knowing at an early age allowed me to adjust to the fact and avoid a lot of confusion and frustration later on. Children who don’t know they are colour blind can be teased by others if they get confused about colours in school, and might doubt their own intelligence (Todd, 2018).

I was lucky to go to a school that routinely tested for colour blindness. Not so lucky were the billions of colour blind people before 1790, the year scientist John Dalton discovered that he was red-green colour blind. This happened when he realised that he could not tell the difference between a block of sealing wax he was told was red and a block he was told was green. Dalton went on to research the issue and lecture and publish on colour blindness. However, before 1790 people did not realise that colour blindness was a ‘thing’. This no doubt led to all sorts of errors and confusion, from modest people inadvertently wearing outlandishly garish clothing, to people not seeing the signs of serious medical problems (e.g. blood in faeces).

As a teenager, it occurred to me that if I could be absolutely certain that there was no difference between something red and something green, then I in essence had to doubt the evidence of my senses. Maybe there were all sorts of other subtle blindnesses that we hadn’t discovered yet? Perhaps the same gene coding for colour blindness creates blindness for other issues too? A worrying thought that deflated any sense of being 100% correct on any issue. For example, I might look at the facts and be convinced that the solution to crime is to end the causes of crime (e.g. social deprivation), but another person might look at the same facts and be convinced that the solution is to increase punishment for offenders. Who is correct? It would be wonderful if we could just rely on objective evidence rather than subjective views, but the problem is that we view the objective through our own subjective lenses, thus the argument might not move forward at all, and even become more consolidated.

In later years I began to realise that the self-doubt I had learned about my colour vision deficiency was something that many others might benefit from too. For example, despite the same facts being publicly available to everyone, why are some people apparently so certain that gender is the result of nurture rather than nature? Don’t they feel even a little doubt about their opinion? Or perhaps a certain proportion of the population suffer from blindness around gender.

This might explain why although around 75% of suicides are male, male suicide is relatively non-existent as an issue in Psychology or in Gender Studies. When this statistic is highlighted, it is often accompanied by a ‘victim blaming’ attitude (e.g. ‘well if men sought help then they wouldn’t kill themselves’) or even humour (e.g. ‘men are better at DIY, thus construct more solidly lethal methods to use against themselves’).

These examples of ‘male gender blindness’ (Seager et al, 2014) and the ‘gender empathy gap’ (Barry, 2016) are a common feature of discussions of gender. Martin Seager sometimes uses the image of the ‘elephant in the room’ to describe the blindness to male gender issues. I like the ‘rabbit / duck’ illusion, which is a good analogy for how some people look at life and only see only issues facing women, and typically don’t see any of the issues facing men in the picture. For example, they see women as being oppressed by they traditional role of housewife, but don’t see men as oppressed in their traditional role of provider (often in dangerous or dirty jobs) and protector (e.g. conscripted to fight in wars). It seems that we can observe a behaviour, but interpret the behaviour in multiple ways e.g. is the man who holds a door for a woman (a) sexist (b) benevolently sexist (c) kind?

Inevitably, my analogy of colour blindness and gender-related cognitions doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the motives underlying cognitions. It doesn’t explain, for example, the process by which people might change their minds about gender issues. One suspects that people who have had a trauma of some kind related to gender issues are more likely to impose a schema upon the world that sees gender issue threatening, and the restricted view of gender is a coping strategy to control their anxieties. My experience is that this schema is often emotionally entrenched and changes only slowly, if at all.

I think what we all need to do is take a step back from our strongly held views and have the courage to ask ourselves: ‘what if I am wrong about this? What if there is another side to the picture that I have not been able to see?’  Applying some healthy scepticism to our own views has the potential to bring more light to discussions, and reduce the heat, and lead us all to a more enlightened place.

 

About the author

Dr John Barry is a chartered psychologist and co-founder of the Male Psychology Network

 

Related information

Martin Seager and John Barry will be presenting their views on ‘male gender blindness’ and other cognitive distortions at UCL on Nov 22nd http://www.malepsychology.org.uk/event/introducing-a-new-way-of-looking-at-gender

 

 

 

 

Open post

If life gives you lemons, forget the lemonade – get a haircut

By Dr John Barry

Photo: the author with Alex, enjoying a visit to Swagger barbers, in Liverpool Street, central London. Photo by Louise Liddon.

This article was originally published in the Australian magazine Barber Shop. Barry JA (2018). If life gives you lemons, forget the lemonade – get a haircut, Barber Shop, 7, 2, pp.30-31. It can be accessed online here http://issuu.com/princess14/docs/barbershop_yr7iss2_?e=2610255/62052600

 

Scenario 1: You have just lost your job and your girlfriend has left you. You are feeling miserable and don’t feel like leaving the house but have been advised by a friend to see a therapist. The therapist seems professional and well intentioned, but she is puzzled when you try to make a joke about being dumped and seems more interested in your ex-girlfriend’s feelings than your own.

Scenario 2: You have just lost your job and your girlfriend has left you. You are feeling miserable and don’t feel like leaving the house but you are forcing yourself to get a haircut for a job interview on Monday. You sit down in the barber’s chair and after exchanging a few jokes about awful bosses and ex-girlfriends, you start to sit back and relax. Pretty soon it doesn’t seem quite so serious anymore.

 

There is a stereotype that when women are depressed they know it. They cry, talk with friends about how they feel, maybe binge eat, and maybe talk to a counsellor. The stereotype for men it that when they are depressed they don’t even know it. They might feel numb or angry, sleep less, drink more and do drugs, play video games, use sex or pornography more. The las thing they will do is see a therapist. But is there any truth to these stereotypes? Well, although we know that everyone is different and that all men don’t act the same and all women don’t act the same, there is also more than a grain of truth in the above stereotypes about sex differences in dealing with stress.

Men are less likely than women to go to a therapist when they have mental health problems. This begs the question: when men are experiencing mental health issues, what do they do? Well, although it is part of traditional masculinity to have control over your feelings, there is evidence that when men are depressed they are more likely than women to ‘act out’ in violence. Worse still, men kill themselves at three times the rate that women do.

In many ways Australia has been ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to dealing with men’s mental health. Several organisations have set the trend for other countries in dealing with the complex problems around men’s mental health. Notable examples are Movember, who started out with a focus on prostate cancer, but expanded into suicide and men’s mental health. Beyondblue and Men’s Sheds have, like Movember, had an influence internationally. These initially community-based projects have begun to influence mainstream mental health providers too. Recent examples are the national campaigns designed to improve male help-seeking such as the “Belief in Change” campaign by the Australian Psychological Society and the “Better Access” campaign by the Australian Department of Health.

And they have good reason to do so: the Australian mental health group Beyondblue suggest that men in Australia underestimate the importance of mental health, and go to therapy less than women do. This begs some important questions, such as (a) why don’t men like therapy as much as women do? (b) do men prefer to do other things that support their mental health? Let’s explore these questions.

 

Why don’t men like therapy as much as women do?

My research group has identified several issues. For example, interviews with 46 experienced psychological therapists of various kinds had found that men and women tend to deal with emotional problems differently. In general, although women want to talk about their feelings, men prefer to want a quick solution to their problem, and preferably one that consists of steps that make sense to them. Straight away, you can see that some forms of therapy, especially those focussed on talking about feelings, and going to appeal the men less than women. There is no routine training yet for psychologists in how to deal specifically with male clients.

There is another possible issue: in Australia, as in many countries, there are far more female therapists than male. Although most people don’t mind whether their therapist is male or female, reflecting the fact that women are capable of understanding and treating men, some men will only see a male therapist. This is most likely to occur in cases whether their issue is related to women in some way e.g. a male victim of domestic violence. Because of the lack of research on this topic, we can only guess at how many of these men end up with untreated chronic mental health issues, ending in suicide.

 

Do men prefer to do things other than therapy support their mental health?

A recent survey of ours found that men and women differ in some ways when it comes to coping with stress. For example, women are more likely to comfort eat, and men are more likely to use sex or pornography to deal with stress. There are many other ways in which men find stress relief. A very popular movement that started in Australia is Men’s Sheds. Although intended mainly as a way for men to get together to work on a common project (e.g. fixing garden furniture), it turns out that ‘shedding’ offers an opportunity for men to chat while working, sometimes about their personal lives and feelings. This is especially helpful for men who are socially isolated. Studies at the universities of Oxford and Glasgow have found that there are emotional benefits for men of having a social drink in the pub with friends. (Cautionary note: self-medicating and binge drinking usually create rather than cure mental health problems).

Studies in the US since the 70s have found that the hair dressing salon has an important social and mental health function for women. It is only in the past dozen years that the benefits to men of visiting the barber shop have been more recognised. One of the best examples of this is a UK community-based programme called Barbertalk, which encourages men to open up about their issues with mental health. The Lions Barber Collective is the creation of barber Tom Chapman inspired by the suicide of a good friend. Barbertalk trains barbers to recognise when customers are experiencing mental health issues. The barber listens and offers basic advice on where to seek help. Barbertalk has proved very successful and is being rolled out in the US and Holland.

At the Male Psychology Conference in University College London in 2015, Dr Frank Fielding gave a talk on the mental health of black men. He said that black men often didn’t feel comfortable with conventional therapy for various reasons, and added the intriguing comment that visiting the barber shop was one way in which they got informal community-based wellbeing support. This led me to conduct a study, with Tamika Roper of the Male Psychology Network, into whether there are gender and racial differences in the wellbeing benefits of visting the barbershop. We found that black and white women both had moderate wellbeing benefits in terms of talking and socialising at the hairdresser. However black men left everyone else behind in terms of wellbeing benefits. It seems that black men were not simply going to the barber shop for a haircut, but would take their friends along too in order to socialise and have fun. These findings have impressed me so much that I have given up my previous attitude of sitting grimly in the barber’s chair wishing I was somewhere else. These days I make sure I have a friendly chat with my barber, usually with a lot of good natured banter. I now look forward to getting a haircut, and would advise everyone else to use getting a haircut as an opportunity to have fun and connect with another human being.

 

About the author: Dr John Barry is a chartered psychologist and co-founder of the Male Psychology Network. He has published around 60 peer-reviewed papers on topics in health psychology and clinical psychology.

 

 

 

Open post

It’s unwise to be dogmatic about gender issues

By Dr John Barry

First published in the BPS blog on 3rd August 2018 here https://www.bps.org.uk/blogs/dr-john-barry/its-unwise-be-dogmatic-about-gender-issues

 

Like 8% of men and 0.5% of women, I am colour blind. Being colour blind has a significant impact on Quality of Life (Barry et al, 2017), creating problems in everyday activities such as understanding coloured graphs (in lectures and textbooks) and maps (e.g. the London Underground map).

Children who don’t know they are colour blind can be teased by others if they get confused about colours in school, and might doubt their own intelligence (Todd, 2018).

However I was lucky enough to go to a school that routinely tested for colour blindness, and knowing at an early age allowed me to adjust to the fact and avoid a lot of confusion and frustration later on.

Not so lucky were the billions of colour blind people before 1790, the year scientist John Dalton discovered that he was red-green colour blind. This happened when he realised that he could not tell the difference between a block of sealing wax he was told was red and a block he was told was green.

But while Dalton would go on to research the issue and lecture and publish on colour blindness, prior to 1790 people did not realise that colour blindness was a ‘thing’. This no doubt led to all sorts of errors and confusion, from modest people inadvertently wearing outlandishly garish clothing, to people not seeing the signs of serious medical problems (e.g. blood in faeces).

As a teenager, it occurred to me that if I could be absolutely certain that there was no difference between something red and something green, then I in essence had to doubt the evidence of my senses.

Maybe there were all sorts of other subtle blindnesses that we hadn’t discovered yet? Perhaps the same gene coding for colour blindness creates blindness for other issues too?

This was a worrying thought that deflated any sense of being 100% correct on any issue.

For example, I might look at the facts and be convinced that the solution to crime is to end the causes of crime (e.g. social deprivation), but another person might look at the same facts and be convinced that the solution is to increase punishment for offenders. Who is correct?

It would be wonderful if we could just rely on objective evidence rather than subjective views, but the problem is that we view the objective through our own subjective lenses, thus the argument might not move forward at all, and even become more consolidated.

In later years I began to realise that the self-doubt I had learned about my colour vision deficiency was something that many others might benefit from too.

For example, despite the same facts being publicly available to everyone, why are some people apparently so certain that gender is the result of nurture rather than nature? Don’t they feel even a little doubt about their opinion? Or perhaps a certain proportion of the population suffer from blindness around gender.

This might explain why although around 75% of suicides are male, male suicide is relatively non-existent as an issue in Psychology or in Gender Studies.

When this statistic is highlighted, it is often accompanied by a ‘victim blaming’ attitude (e.g. ‘well if men sought help then they wouldn’t kill themselves’) or even humour (e.g. ‘men are better at DIY, thus construct more solidly lethal methods to use against themselves’).

These examples of ‘male gender blindness’ (Seager et al, 2014) and the ‘gender empathy gap’ (Barry, 2016) are a common feature of discussions of gender.

Martin Seager sometimes uses the image of the ‘elephant in the room’ to describe the blindness to male gender issues. I myself prefer the ‘rabbit / duck’ illusion, which is a good analogy for how some people look at life and only see only issues facing women, and typically don’t see any of the issues facing men in the picture.

For example, they see women as being oppressed by they traditional role of housewife, but don’t see men as oppressed in their traditional role of provider (often in dangerous or dirty jobs) and protector (e.g. conscripted to fight in wars).

It seems that we can observe a behaviour, but interpret the behaviour in multiple ways e.g. is the man who holds a door for a woman (a) sexist (b) benevolently sexist (c) kind?

Inevitably, my analogy of colour blindness and gender-related cognitions doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the motives underlying cognitions. It doesn’t explain, for example, the process by which people might change their minds about gender issues.

One suspects that people who have had a trauma of some kind related to gender issues are more likely to impose a schema upon the world that sees gender issue threatening, and the restricted view of gender is a coping strategy to control their anxieties. My experience is that this schema is often emotionally entrenched and changes only slowly, if at all.

I think what we all need to do is take a step back from our strongly held views and have the courage to ask ourselves: ‘what if I am wrong about this? What if there is another side to the picture that I have not been able to see?’

Applying some healthy scepticism to our own views has the potential to bring more light to discussions, and reduce the heat, and lead us all to a more enlightened place.

 

 

 

Open post

Issues adoptive parents might face

I am an adoptive father. I have written this blog in order to share some of my experiences and in the hope of stimulating discussion. I have chosen to write anonymously so as to protect the privacy of my family.

 

Adoptive parents make a highly significant contribution to the lives of the children they adopt. They provide a home for a child (or children) in need and can end the chain of abuse and/or neglect within families.

Those who adopt also save the taxpayer a vast amount of money every year. Way back in 2007 Gary Streeter MP estimated the cost of keeping a child in local authority care at about £200,000 per year (1). What the cost is now I do not know, but it surely cannot be any less.

There are three problem areas that adoptive parents face.

 

The task

The first, and most obvious issue, is that the work of adopters is not easy. Children who are placed for adoption can have problems such as Attachment Disorder, Attention Disorder/Hyperactivity Disorder, autism spectrum disorders, foetal alcohol syndrome and learning difficulties. Some of these affect boys more than girls. Others affect both sexes equally.

Children who are placed for adoption may have also suffered extreme neglect, physical and/or sexual abuse.

The resulting problems that adoptive parents may have to face are many and varied. They can include:

  • violence (which can be directed at the parents, at siblings or others)
  • urinary and/or faecal incontinence (not just in infants or children but also in teenagers)
  • withholding faeces (for lengths of time that most people would think impossible)
  • self-harm
  • ‘crazy lying’ (i.e. maintaining a lie in spite of irrefutable evidence to the contrary)
  • demanding the constant attention of one of the adoptive parents while refusing to acknowledge the existence of the other
  • dangerous sexual behaviour
  • outbursts of extreme anger (with or without physical violence)
  • school refusal
  • persistent stealing and more.

It is important therefore that those who are considering adoption ask the relevant questions about the child’s background and insist on a full disclosure of the facts. In her excellent article Are social workers being dishonest about the realities of adoption? Sally Donovan stresses the need for social workers to be as open as possible with prospective adopters about the child’s background. She also highlights the need for possible adopters to be willing to accept the truths that no-one wants to hear (2).

All of this can be particularly difficult for prospective adoptive fathers. The adoption process is almost always female dominated. How can a man insist, and continue to insist, on knowing the full and absolute truth without being stereotyped as an ‘alpha male’ or ‘bully’? How should he deal with evasive answers or with responses that do not answer his question?

These are important questions that men in particular should ask themselves when considering adoption.

 

Assumptions and stereotypes around gender

We must be aware of any possible gender-based assumptions or stereotypes in regard to adopted children.

It has been generally accepted for some time that girls can suffer sexual abuse. However, as has been noted elsewhere on this site, boys can also suffer this form of abuse. The perpetrator of sexual abuse may be male or female.

If a girl behaves in a sexually inappropriate manner we may ask if she has been sexually abused. Do we ask the same question if a boy behaves in a manner that is sexually inappropriate?

Do we assume that because all of the carers in a boy’s life have been women that sexual abuse cannot have occurred?

Both boys and girls can be physically violent. Do we assume that if a girl is violent that she must need therapy, but assume that a boy who is violent needs stricter discipline?

 

The myth

As a society we still tend to believe what James Taylor correctly identifies as ‘The Adoption Myth’ (3). That is, the belief that adoption is something rather wonderful and romantic. It is imagined that the rescue of a lost and lonely child by loving parents will suddenly erase all the pain and trauma the child has endured. The child, it is assumed, will be immediately and forever grateful. Everyone will live ‘happily ever after’.

The reality, as we have seen, is very different. The myth however is maintained in the public consciousness. Partly this is done by local authorities that downplay the demands of adoption in order to get more children through the system. It is further supported by popular culture that portrays family breakdown as being quickly and painlessly resolved.

The myth is believed by teachers, medical professionals, social workers and others. The result is often still more trauma for adoptive parents who may already be struggling to cope.

 

The silence

As I noted at the beginning of this piece adoption saves the local authority a huge amount of money. If it were not for adoptive parents, taxation would need to increase or government services would have to be reduced – or both.

In my experience, and in the experience of every adopter to whom I have spoken, local authority staff refuse to admit this simple fact. Why this is the case is a matter of speculation but it needs to be addressed both as an issue of truth and of justice.

 

What needs to change?

Any discussion of adoption by any level of government should acknowledge the fact that a child’s problems do not disappear because the child is moved into an adoptive family. This is particularly the case when a local authority is advertising for prospective adopters.

Civil servants, especially those employed by local government, should openly acknowledge the fact that adoptive parents save the taxpayer a vast amount of money.

Local authorities should work toward making their adoption services equally staffed by men and women as far as possible.

It should be recognised that adoptive fathers often face particular challenges. For example, a man may be the household’s main source of income. If so, he may have to accept that he will lose this role as his career is compromised by the demands of his children and the family become increasingly dependent on various benefits.

School headteachers and governors should ensure that their school has a specific policy with regard to ‘looked after’ and adopted children that recognises the unique needs of this group. This should also set out how these will be addressed in the school situation.

Courses in colleges and Universities for the training of doctors, nurses, teachers, youth workers, social workers and others should include how to meet the unique needs of adopted children and their families. Wherever possible adoptive parents should be included in the development of these programmes.

 

In conclusion

People sometimes ask me if I had my time over again would I still be an adoptive father. It is a question I cannot answer. Being an adopter is not easy. I personally know of two adoptive fathers who have committed suicide. I can only say that I am grateful for a wife who has sacrificed so much of herself, for extended family, and for our church. Without them I know I would not have survived.

 

References

  1. Streeter, G. (2007) You and Yours, BBC Radio 4, 21 February 2007.

 

  1. Donovan, S. Are social workers being dishonest about the realities of adoption? Community care, 16 September, 2014.

http://www.communitycare.co.uk/2014/09/16/dishonesty-adoption-setting-children-families-fail/?cmpid=NLC|SCSC|SCDDB-2014-0916

  1. Taylor, J. (2017) Help! I Need to Know About the Problems of Adoption, Day One, Leominster, UK

 

See also: http://www3.hants.gov.uk/ncb_understanding_why1__2_.pdf

 

 

 

Open post

Tribute to Prof Geoff Dench RIP, author of ‘Transforming Men’

The following is an extract from the start of Will Collins’ article ‘Of Frogs And Men’ in The Illustrated Empathy Gap website on 9th July 2018. The full article is available here http://empathygap.uk/?p=2429

 

In 1996, Professor Geoff Dench – who died two weeks ago – published a book “Transforming Men”. Apparently he did not choose the title himself. Dench used the fairy story “The Frog Prince” as an allegory for the state of gender relations in the West. There is a curious consilience with the present here, and Jordan Peterson comes into it. But first, Dench’s argument – and starting with the story itself…

A young princess, still very much a child, who spends all of her time playing, ventures outside the palace grounds and enters the wild forest beyond. Her golden ball, which she values more than anything else, falls into a pool (or well) and sinks from view, leaving her heartbroken.

To her surprise a frog appears and speaks to her, offering to retrieve her ball for her if she promises to be his friend. In her childish grief for the lost ball, and carelessly disregarding the future, she agrees. So the frog restores her ball to her.

The princess returns to the palace, where she is later embarrassed by the frog who has followed her, and who now insists on her keeping the promise of friendship. She is reluctant, but her father, the King, insists that she honour her commitment.

So the frog is allowed to participate in the civilised activities of the palace, such as eating at the table and sharing the princess’s food. After contact has become more intimate, variously expressed as the princess kissing the frog, or allowing him to sleep on her pillow (with the result, in some versions, that she begins to feel more friendly towards him), the frog turns into a prince.

He declares that this is in fact his original and true form, and that by befriending him the princess has removed him from the spell of an evil witch. They marry – for the princess has now matured – and go off in a gold coach to live at the prince’s own castle.

In what way did Dench interpret this fairy story as an allegory for gender relations? Dench was a social anthropologist and naturally comes at the matter from that perspective. For Dench the key anthropological problem for a society to solve is how to make constructive use of men. Think primates: the males are a law unto themselves. Or, better, a lawlessness. They make little contribution to the troop (see, however, the comment from Joseph, below). There is, of course, no pair bonding amongst primates; no paternal resourcing. Arguably, the anthropological inventions of family and society are key to the evolutionary success of Homo sapiens. Not that Dench would express it in that way.

But he certainly argued strongly for the crucial importance of family. And families include fathers, and fathers mean patriarchy. Aargh! But Dench did not understand patriarchy in the feminist sense – namely a conspiracy by men to oppress and exploit women. For Dench, patriarchy was a piece of theatre, a subterfuge expressly designed to tie men into familial relationships whose purpose was twofold: to extract benefit from men whilst minimising the threat of men reverting to a feral state. From this perspective, patriarchy is closer to an exploitation of men by women rather than the reverse. This aligns with my own view as expressed in The Empathy Gap, though Dench would not have taken my evolutionary approach to it.

So, to the interpretation of the story. A frog is a feral male – or a free male, if you will: a male who is not a patriarch, a family man. A Prince is a male bound into society – and society (or the ‘moral economy’) is predominantly female. As a boy, and a member of a family, a male starts as a Prince. As he becomes mature, however, he becomes independent and loses his initial status as a Prince. He is no longer accepted by female society and has become a frog. Most adolescent males know what it is to be a frog. It is specifically female society which rejects the young man, so, in the myth, it is a witch – the analogue of female society – which casts the spell which turns him into a frog.

To re-enter society – to become once again a Prince – the frog must avail himself a second time of female magic. To this end he must perform some service of great value to a Princess. That done, the Princess becomes locked into an obligation which – it is notable – the King, the existing Patriarch, enforces. The externally enforced obligation is essential, because the Princess is initially repulsed by the frog.

The allegory makes explicit female power over men: to turn them into frogs or frogs into Princes. The presumption of the story is that any frog must prefer to become a Prince. But the twist for our times is that a frog may prefer to remain a frog, despite the dangers of the forest. Being a Prince sounds grand, but actually means duty and obligation, in contrast to the freedom of the forest. And as for the modern Princess, she is no longer so keen on transforming frogs, and her Patriarch, the King, has been usurped by his wife, the Queen, who does not enforce the old rules. As Dench writes,

Girls no longer want to be dependent, even nominally; and boys are losing hope of being turned into princes. It is time to re-write the story as a fin-de-millenium lament, or even a horror story. In it the princess refuses to accept the loathsome frog as a partner after all. Her power to perform good magic is thereby wasted; and the original spell of the witch, far from being broken, remains unchecked and grows in strength. Soon the princess’s father, the king, abdicates and turns back into a monstrous and malevolent frog himself, and starts abusing the inhabitants of the palace. Bereft of leadership, the kingdom slips into feuding and chaos, its citizens selfish and unruly; and the forest of individual desire starts to encroach upon the formerly meticulous and orderly palace gardens.”

Patriarchy was only ever a piece of theatre, a con, and the status of Prince in part illusion and in part reward. Surely the Witch and the Princess were playing for the same team, working the prince-frog-prince scam. In which case, was the “Prince”, who was never truly a prince, never really a frog either? Or is my cynicism merely my froggy tendencies triumphing over my princely tendencies?

In a curious recent resonance of frogs, enter Pepe. And enter Kek – in ancient Egyptian mythology the deification of the concept of primordial darkness. Enter Jordan Peterson and Jonathan Pageau, on whom the relevance of The Frog Prince is not lost, as made explicit in their discussion of the metaphysics of Pepe. In The Frog Prince the choice of frog as the creature into which the Prince is turned is appropriate because, herpetophiles aside, frogs are generally perceived as physically repulsive, especially to beautiful, self-regarding Princesses. But there is something deeper here. The frog is a mythological archetype. Being amphibian, the frog mediates between two states of being. Water represents chaos, and frogs being at home in water, are the emissaries of chaos. The explosion of popularity of the Pepe meme saw the ubiquitous frog deployed to represent absolutely anything. Being the emissary of the primordial, Pepe naturally inclines to the glorification of misrule. As Jonathan Pageau has explained, the universal applicability of the Pepe meme is because, as a manifestation of chaos, it can instantiate anything. Chaos is at the same time nothing and everything. A frog is empowered to pull a specific instantiation out of the infinite potential of chaos, such as a golden ball from water.

 

Reference

Dench, G. (1998). Transforming men: Changing patterns of dependency and dominance in gender relations. Transaction Publishers.
Open post

The Christian psychologist: Some thoughts on anger and justice

by John Steley, psychologist.

Image: The Merchants Chased from the Temple painted by James Tissot

 

What do people think of when they hear the word ‘Christian’? Some may react with cynicism but for others it may evoke thoughts of a caring attitude, sympathy and a listening ear for those who need it.

I do not disagree that Christians are called to care for those I need. This includes the call to listen when necessary. (Although most of my training took place in secular state universities I was always mindful of the theologian Paul Tillich’s dictum that ‘The first duty of love is to listen.’) But is there more to it than that? I think there is.

The Christian scriptures call us to care, but they also include a demand for justice. In the Old Testament, prophets like Amos were scathing in their denunciation of the injustices of their day. In the New Testament the news of the birth of Christ was first of all given, not to the rulers or the elite, but to a group of shepherds – people at the very bottom of the social heap. (A point that often seems to be missed in sanitised nativity plays.)

So, when I meet a client my first job is to listen. What is this person’s story? Why has he or she come to see me? What do they want me to do? What does he or she really need?

It may be that reflective counselling, psychological insights and a plan to change behaviour may be enough. These things are of benefit to many people. But I must also ask myself, does this person need justice? Has he or she sought justice and had it denied?

The Bible is also clear that while injustice can come from ‘below’, for example the mugger or the thief, it can also come from ‘above’. How many times have we heard complaints from people who have faced indifference, incompetence or outright hostility from those who are paid to address their needs?

In cases such as this my Christian commitment compels me to say that simply listening, offering insights and helping the person to cope are not enough. At best this would be inadequate. At worst it colludes with the abusers.

When a person has suffered abuse he or she must recognise that their anger is normal and good. (As a Christian I believe it is God -given.) They must then decide what to do with it. Expressing anger ‘safely’ by talking, screaming or writing may be helpful to the person concerned but it does little to address the injustice itself. How many people have a lingering sense of justice not having been done years after the event?

What many people need is a plan to use their anger constructively to face the abuser or the abusive system. This may mean joining, or if necessary forming, a group of like-minded people. It may mean developing skills such as approaching politicians, writing press releases and using social media. It may also mean digging in for a long fight.

However long the battle takes, anger used in these ways can help the person concerned. It can also be a benefit to others and to the community as a whole. I sometimes point out to people that some of this nation’s greatest reformers were essentially very angry people. (Think of Florence Nightingale or William Booth.)

So as a Christian psychologist I want to be sensitive and listen as I believe Jesus did. But that same Jesus armed himself with a whip and threw the corrupt money changers out of the Temple. I have not done that myself but I see in that act an important principle – and a challenge.

 

About the author

John Steley is a psychologist in private practice in London http://johnsteley.co.uk/

 

 

 

 

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