Practice guidelines and masculinity

Ella Rhodes reports on American Psychological Association guidelines.

The American Psychological Association recently released psychological practice guidelines for men and boys. Based on 40 years of research, the guidelines suggest that psychologists should be aware of the impact of certain elements of masculinity which may have a negative effect on men’s mental health.

While APA guidelines for working with women and girls were published over 10 years ago, the current guidelines for practicing with men and boys have been met with outrage in some sections of the media. While they have been in development for 13 years, some have suggested their publication is ideologically motivated.

The 10 guidelines, each presented with relevant evidence and potential applications in psychological practice, attempt to help psychologists tackle the barriers that might lead to the difficulties men face. In their introduction the authors point out that the varied social identities men have affect the way they experience and perform masculinity – which can have both negative and positive effects.

Men and boys are disproportionately represented as victims, and perpetrators, of violence, have higher levels of suicide and die younger. However, many do not seek help when they need it and report difficulties in finding gender-sensitive psychological treatment. As the guidelines point out ‘boys and men have historically been the focus of psychological research and practice as a normative referent for behaviour rather than as gendered human beings.’

The guidelines suggest, among other things, that psychologists should be aware of each individual man’s experience of masculinity and understand its social and cultural context. They should encourage positive father involvement and healthy family relationships. They point to the importance of understanding the impact of privilege, power and sexism on boys’ development, and how this may affect their relationships with others.

Psychologists should also be aware of the special issues boys face during education: a disproportionate number of boys struggle academically, particularly those from African American and Latino communities. When working with boys and men, the guidelines suggest, psychologists should be aware of the problems with aggression and violence many men face and understand these at both a cultural and individual level.

The APA’s Division 51, the Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity, has issued a statement following what they describe as ‘media misrepresentation’ of the guidelines. They point out the guidelines, rather than damning masculinity as a whole, encourage its many positive aspects. ‘When we report that some aspects of “traditional masculinity” are potentially harmful, we are referring to a belief system held by a few that associates masculinity with extreme behaviors that harm self and others… For example, people who believe that to be a “real man” is to get needs met through violence, dominance over others, or extreme restriction of emotions are at risk for poor physical, psychological, and social outcomes (e.g., increased risk for cardiovascular disease, social isolation, depression relationship distress, etc.). When a man believes that he must be successful no matter who is harmed or his masculinity is expressed by being sexually abusive, disrespectful, and harmful to others, that man is conforming to the negative aspects associated with traditional masculinity.’ 

- See also a letter in this edition.

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