MAN THERAPY: THE RED-BLOODED APPROACH TO THE BLUES

As someone who identifies as a genderqueer feminist, I should probably be criticising Beyondblue’s new Man Therapy campaign. But I think it’s brilliant. The premise is that the largest proportion of suicide victims are working males. Not your usual suspects; women, not ethnic or religious or sexual minorities, but the middle-aged fathers, blokes and gentlemen who are supposed to have it together.

The “Man Therapy” whitepaper written by Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas (Carson J Spencer Foundation), Jarrod Hindman (Colorado State Office of Suicide Prevention) and Joe Conrad (Cactus Marketing) explains why working aged men need a new approach to mental health.

In-depth interviews and focus group studies have shown that men do not access mental health services for three reasons:

  1. They fear that their problem is abnormal or unsolvable;
  2. They fear losing control, such as work privileges, status or being “locked up”; and
  3. They need a system of reciprocity, otherwise they perceive their mental health practitioner as maintaining an imbalance of power.

Man Therapy introduces you to Dr. Rich Mahogany, a real All-American “man’s man” with a gruff voice, a substantial frame and a brusque, matter-of-fact manner. His virtual office is a plush cabin with a mounted stag’s head, a dartboard, pool cues, a model boat and bowling trophies. The only books are a leather-bound three-volume set on “Gentlemental Health”. (“There’s no damn French.”) There’s a red phone, which connects the user to an emergency hotline. This is skeuomorphism to perfection, creating an environment that feels real and tangible with the ease of access and anonymity of the virtual world.

With a name like Rich Mahogany, he sounds like he’s out of Bold And The Beautiful. But I think if Annie Proulx rewrote Parks And Recreation’s Ron Swanson, you would get closer to our man-therapist.

The credo of NBC's Ron Swanson.

The credo of NBC’s Ron Swanson. Photo: NBC

And he doesn’t just freeze there. He blinks, sighs, fidgets, cracks his knuckles and strokes his fulsome moustache. He picks up a cassette player to play his “soothing noises”, the sound of a motorbike revving. You can watch him chuckle and guffaw as he peruses a Chainsaw Operational Manual. At one point, if left to his own devices, he starts to gut and fillet a fish on top of an esky box. None of this is invasive or disingenuous. For one thing, it really feels as if there is someone there, just quietly waiting for you to ponder your next move. For another, it’s damn entertaining.

Beyondblue has taken Man Therapy and adapted it ever so slightly to resonate more with the Australian bloke. Mahogany’s antipodean counterpart is Dr. Brian Ironwood. He has a humbler, messier office with a few Australian accoutrements to make you feel at home. These include a few pictures of NRL action, a boomerang and a stuffed kookaburra. Ironwood only deviates from the Man Therapy script to swear a little more and at one point, he takes you through a concealed doorway to his shed – the quintessentially Australian man-den. But the approach and objectives of Man Therapy remain the same.

Dr. Ironwood is Mahogany's cruder, ruder and more Australian counterpart. Photo: Beyondblue

Dr. Ironwood is Mahogany’s cruder, ruder Australian counterpart.
Photo: Beyondblue

The first thing Man Therapy does well is change the language of mental health resources. At-risk men often do not see themselves as having a mental illness. They might experience the physical symptoms of depression, but because they haven’t had something to “trigger” an illness (ie. substance abuse or bereavement), they do not identify as having depression. Thus, the typical “if you have depression, seek help” approach is useless. Instead of talking about depression or anxiety, Dr. Mahogany uses terms such as “stressed out”, “burned out” and “down in the dumps”. In this way, Man Therapy engages men with labels that normalise mental illness.

Second, Dr. Mahogany gives men an opportunity to fix themselves with small, concrete steps, so they do not relinquish any control of their situation. He has a “head inspection”, allowing for self-assessment as well as connecting the dots between physical symptoms and emotional issues. The only group therapy is in the form with a forum, “no kumbayas”. Interviews with men suffering from mental illness showed that they wanted nothing more than the tools to take care of themselves in a classic show of stoic, rugged manliness. As one interviewee said, “show me how to stitch up my own wound like Rambo”.

Third and finally, Man Therapy meets men where they are, instead of trying to “make women out of them”, whatever that means. TV spots for Man Therapy are screened in breaks of sports matches and print advertising can be found in the business section of your newspaper or on billboards near the local pub.

Reaching an audience usually left untouched, Dr. Mahogany. Photo: Colorado State Office of Suicide Prevention.

Reaching an audience usually left untouched, Dr. Mahogany.
Photo: Colorado State Office of Suicide Prevention.

Sometimes, it feels as though it goes too far. Dr. Mahogany describes ignoring symptoms as letting an “untreated battle-axe wound fester”. His guide to maintaining mental health is a “D.I.Y” manual. He describes “slap-fighting” and “breaking a sweat on an elliptical machine” as “unmanly” (but sharing your feelings isn’t). And he professes his hatred for shopping malls. Cactus marketing has answered the brief, it seems, too well. What we see in Dr. Mahogany is a conservative, ultra-masculine, civil-war-reenacting father-in-law.

Doesn’t this alienate those cis-men who identify as genderqueer? Does this reaffirm the perception that men should be able to take care of themselves, while women need to be propped up by professionals? Does Dr. Mahogany think that the only way to communicate with men is through the language of conflict, hunting and handiwork?

The answer: yes and no. Yes, Man Therapy brings these stereotypes to prominence, directly targets men and suggests that it is possible to “man up” to deal with your problems. But at the same time, Dr. Mahogany is a mockery of the heteronormative standard of masculinity*. He is a typical “man’s man”, but he is also ridiculous. Man Therapy recognises that depressive symptoms are not consistent with masculine stereotypes. It turns mental illness into a physical illness, so that male sufferers can rationalise their symptoms. But it doesn’t shy away from black humour. It doesn’t take itself seriously.

I’m all about breaking down the gender binary, but Man Therapy is my kind of therapy. It’s simple, task-oriented, pragmatic and reciprocal. I keep control. I keep my pride. I don’t care what it calls itself.

It’s not about exclusion, but about addressing a personality type usually left by the wayside in the case of mental health. No one visiting the site thinks that Dr. Mahogany would ask you to leave if he found out you possessed a functioning pair of ovaries.

Man Therapy isn’t about what genitalia you possess. It’s tapping into the sacred standard of Manhood, which doesn’t speak of sex, but of gender expression. It’s for the stoic, the individual, the provider and the fighter. It’s for the Man inside all of us (on reflection, a poor choice of words). I identify with all of these. That’s why I shop in the men’s section of the department store and that’s why mental health language nauseates me. I eschew labels, but until we come up with something better to identify those who are physically strong but emotionally stunted, let’s use what we have. Call it Man Therapy. With a capital M. Because not all Men are men. Many of them have ovaries, in fact. But, as Dr. Mahogany would say, we’re all “magnificent humans”.

For more stirling work from Beyondblue,
watch http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XM2J7nOp3nU

*Hello, Gender Studies Major.

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