Are we entering an awakening?

This article was first published on the Counselling Directory.

Some of my clients are feeling upbeat about the next few months. In fact, the Coronavirus crisis has delivered some therapeutic effects. It can put personal problems into perspective so that one feels small and insignificant in the sweep of history. People are feeling more connected to other human beings around the world. It’s a reminder that we are, after all, cells in the same collective organism, engaged in the same biological fight. Shared adversity creates bonds. This is the story of our evolutionary past as a communal species.

We’re happier when we feel like we belong. In his book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (2016) Sebastian Junger explores this instinct, noting that while depression and suicide tend to rise with a country’s affluence, they were virtually unknown among indigenous tribes such as the Native Americans. Decades before the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin lamented that English settlers were constantly fleeing over to the Indians — Indians almost never did the same.

Other clients have been experiencing anxiety about the lockdown. Social contact can be a lifeline for people suffering from depression and to lose it can feel really unsafe. There are ways to protect yourself: video calls, meditation, exercise, reading, making plans, working on something, getting outside once a day for exercise, eating and sleeping well. People are struggling with practical changes too: working from home, managing children who are supposed to be doing schoolwork, sharing a small space. These pressures may lead to conflict. Then there are money worries.

Those advised to self-isolate for three months face what might feel like an intimidating challenge, especially those living alone. This group includes over-70s, pregnant women and people with health problems, all of whom are already vulnerable to social alienation and mental illness. Anyone experiencing despair and growing anxiety should talk to someone for emotional support. If you don’t have friends and family available you can call the Samaritans for free 24 hours a day on 116123 for a confidential chat. Or, if you can afford it, book a phone or online video session with a counsellor who can support you through a deeper therapeutic process.

Anyone with Coronavirus symptoms will have to self-isolate while wondering if they will end up on a ventilator or, worse, not be able to get one should they need it. There is a range of further worries: are we about to see the economy collapse, will we run out of food, is there going to be civil unrest? Plenty of ground for an escalating psychological crisis.

But we have a choice.

We’ve become accustomed to living with what is, by historical standards, an unusually low tolerance for uncertainty and risk. Too much safety can feel stifling so we might feel alive when we get back the gift our ancestors took for granted: a world in which tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. Hence the exuberance among newspaper columnists such as Matthew Paris, 70, who wrote: “a little bit of us almost wants to see the pattern of our lives interrupted, even broken” (The Spectator, 21 March).

If we regard the global population of homo sapiens as a single organism trying to defend itself from an attack, what might we observe about its cells; the individuals that make up the whole? If they seem confused, it’s for good reasons. They have been going through an accelerating process of change for the past 10,000 years. Many humans have been living for generations without a personal relationship with their environment and cosmos, instead viewing reality through materialism. High-speed travel and communications have eroded the meaning of place and home. Globalisation means we don’t need other people in our communities like we once did so we feel less anchored and committed to them.

Only a few people – scientists and public servants mainly – have much to do in the ensuing biological fight. The rest of us now have to sit with uncertainty, and with ourselves, in our homes. Perhaps we don’t think of home as an appropriate place to be confined to any more. Not long ago it was normal to spend months at home over winter at this latitude, without transport, shops or much of anything. Just each other. But as we reflect on the crisis today, perhaps our ‘normal’ lives will begin to look different.

What about the price we normally pay for not washing hands properly in hospitals? The World Health Organisation says about seven in 100 hospital patients acquire a new infection in developed countries. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 1.7m hospital-associated infections cause or contribute to 99,000 deaths in the US each year. One study found up to 70% of such infections might be prevented if health care workers followed protocols including hand hygiene.

And the price we normally pay for travel? There were 165,100 road casualties reported to the UK police in the year ending June 2018 (Department of Transport). An average of 13,758 a month. Perhaps that will be halved during lockdown. Meanwhile pubs and bars are shut and parties are out so we can expect less injury and death from alcohol. In England, 7.4% of all hospital admissions were related to alcohol in 2018/19 (Public Health England 2019).

There is light and dark in everything. Perhaps Coronavirus will dampen the frenetic quality of modern life long enough for us, individually and collectively, to reflect on what we really want. Stopping is not necessarily a bad thing. A human being living with chronic stress for long enough will have a breakdown eventually. Perhaps we might view this pandemic as akin to a collective breakdown. We will certainly be different when we emerge. We might work from home more. The economy will be slower. The environment will be cleaner. Perhaps we can use this moment to start to remember who we really are. To come back to ourselves and each other in something like an awakening.

There is tentative evidence to suggest this may be more than a theory. Market research group Glocalities was collecting data in China in a global survey on trust and values when the Coronavirus outbreak began, allowing it to capture a shift in attitudes as tens of millions of Chinese were locked down. The survey was conducted online among 2,022 Chinese people between January 23 and March 13. It found an increase in trust in people, etiquette, appreciation and service to others. Perhaps the pandemic will instigate a community spirit in all affected countries. I’ve already seen this happening in Cornwall, where businesses are responding creatively and people are volunteering to help the NHS. Can you feel it?

Take care — and reach out for support if you need to. Many counsellors offer online and telephone support and are on hand to help you through this challenging time.

He who has the most toys when he dies wins

There are fabulous things about being a man — like banter and piss taking — but sometimes we get lost and trapped by gender scripts. There isn’t a specific therapeutic solution for this but it helps to understand the lived experience of each person coming into the therapy room. It’s 80% about process and 20% about the right approaches. So said Dr Michael Beattie in his training workshop in London today called Working With Men: Meeting The Challenges of Orthodox Masculinity.

Michael is witty and slick. He’s a former communications guy who still does management training for corporates. He works as counselling psychologist at the Gender Identity Clinic, an NHS service in London and co-wrote Counselling Skills For Working With Gender Diversity and Identity (2018). Michael mentions his father a lot, who was 52 when Michael, 49, was born — “my abiding memory of him is being frightened of him, and also wanting to be like him”. Michael shares personal details like growing up in Zimbabwe where his grandfather was a pioneer who saw himself as part of a civilising project when they seem useful, drawing comparisons with the empire building acts and myths of men through history into the modern workplace.

His playfulness and self-deprecation — “I’m a great believer in buying books and not reading them but knowing what they’re about”; “I’m living my own cliche” (about his constant Guardian references); “I’m in between task oriented and feelings, I care about how you feel but we still need to do this”; — make him, in my view, a valuable communicator in what can be a fraught space among therapists. Masculinity is often carefully avoided. Therapy is feminised. Gender didn’t arise once during Michael’s training, during which he was the only man. Here are his points that resonated with me today. I haven’t quoted the research that Michael referenced.

Bodies and behaviour

  • Our bodies create behaviour as well as being directed by those behaviours
  • So the more masculine behaviours I perform the more masculine I become

The pressure to confirm to masculine norms is huge

  • It’s tough being a man — this is known as masculine gender role stress
  • Normative masculinity is an impossible ideal that is always being attempted and competed for
  • Men and boys gain access to the tribe of men through conformity to masculine norms of identity such as winning, self-reliance, emotional control, primacy of work, risk taking, physical toughness, playboy behaviour, dominance, conspicuously avoiding self-care
  • The need to conform to group norms can make us do almost anything, and we look to the apparently most powerful others for social cues and mimic them
  • Research in schools found a ‘boy code’ that was competitive, praised hardness, sporting prowess, casual treatment of schoolwork, being adept at ‘cussing’, dominance and control, and the importance of not being seen to try too hard at anything
  • Boys were free and funny in groups, serious and softer in one to one interviews
  • Popularity is linked to masculinity
  • Young men have a higher threshold of severity for help seeking than females, particularly help from a GP
  • The hero myth still drives men: the brave adventurer, facing down fears — both external monsters and the emotions inside himself, and conquering the unknown
  • The primacy of work enables men (and women, it has to be said) to achieve social status and avoid facing existential anxieties
  • Boys today feel stranded between the more orthodox masculinities of their fathers and grandfathers and the #metoo movement

Masculine norms kill men

  • Conformity to masculine norms builds an ‘acquired capability’ for suicide because men get used to impulsive, aggressive and risky behaviours that expose them to pain and fear
  • Asking for help is at odds with orthodox masculinity scripts
  • Men are in a triple bind: they’re shamed into hiding normal emotional expressivity, which creates the possibility of anger or rage, but help-seeking is prohibited

The more money I have, the more masculine I am

  • Traditional masculinity at work is characterised by competition, aggressive interactions, and exercising control. It fuels a pernicious ‘busy ethic’. Productivity is valued and there’s an unease with ‘worthless’, unscheduled time, especially retirement. “The more money I have, the more masculine I am.” “He who has the most toys when he dies wins” (the billionaire publisher Malcolm Forbes is credited with this last quote)

Involved fatherhood clashes with traditional masculinity

  • Fathers who adhere to masculine norms and those with depression report higher levels of maternal gatekeeping (ie their partner blocks them from access to their children). In traditional gender roles parenting is the mother’s domain, which limits men’s ability to participate in the home as an equally contributing parent

Anger is a key to understanding men

  • Anger and aggression can be a way back into the tribe: men who have missed a goal can end up fouling another player in an act of violence
  • Anger helps preserve boundaries and a stable sense of self, and so men can react with hostility to insights by a therapist — therefore therapists need to be able to remain calm in the “being hated” bit or refer their client on

Friendless and disconnectedness is rife

  • Friendlessness is a massive problem among men. It trebles for UK men from their early 20s to late middle age. One in eight men have no friends at all. Married men are a third more likely than singles to have no one outside the home to turn to for support

How therapists can help

  • Masculinity isn’t toxic but aspects of its performance can become difficult
  • Therapists can work with masculine scripts and explore with their male clients how they serve them. Scripts include: strong and silent; tough guy; playboy, winner; independent
  • Male therapists can use appropriate self disclosure, humour and realness to model vulnerability. Female therapists can use motivational interviewing techniques to explore the client’s stories around how masculine scripts have affected them and defuse gender-specific stigma
  • Common process issues working with men: restricted emotionality and shame, anger and aggression, compartmentalisation

Hegemonic masculinity
This one I couldn’t swallow.

  • Hegemonic masculinity wins consent to its rule from those it subjugates, creating a pyramid structure of power with layers of complicit, subordinated and marginalised people — ‘the patriarchy’ we hear so much about

I’m not sure this pyramid actually exists in the UK. What is the evidence for it? The concept of hegemony comes from the Italian Marxist Antonia Gramsci, who was the founding member of the Communist Party of Italy in 1921. He thought the greatest obstacle Marxism faced was the Christian foundations of Western European cultures. In his prison notebook he wrote: “Any country grounded in Judaeo-Christian values can’t be overthrown until those roots are cut … Socialism is precisely the religion that must overwhelm Christianity … in the new order, Socialism will triumph by first capturing the culture via infiltration of schools, universities, churches and the media by transforming the consciousness of society.” It feels like this has happened in the last decade. But assuming the pyramid still exists, if it ever did, where is the evidence that life as a member of the complicit overlord class of white men is so good? There’s plenty of evidence to the contrary in public policy, documented forensically by William Collins in The Empathy Gap: Male Disadvantages and the Mechanisms of Their Neglect (2019).

Statistics on male disadvantage

I attended William Collins’ presentation at the International Conference on Men’s Issues 2018, in which he demonstrated, forensically, how UK government policy across justice, health and education discriminates against men.

Below is a brief bullet point list taken from Collins’ website empathygap.uk summarising men and boys’ issues. You can read his presentation at the 2018 conference here and watch it here.

  • Educational disadvantage of boys, from aged 5 to university.
  • Lack of recognition of, or assistance for, male victims of partner abuse.
  • Men’s shorter life expectancy.
  • Substantially less research funding on men-only diseases compared with women-only diseases.
  • Averaged over the last five years, the male suicide rate in England was 3.3 times that of females (in Wales, 4.3 times), suicide being the commonest cause of death in males under 45.
  • Men have virtually no paternity rights.
  • Paternity fraud is rife, is extremely damaging to men and children, but society regards it as just fine.
  • Fathers are greatly disadvantaged in child contact arrangements after partner separation.
  • False allegations are commonly used as a tactic against men in the family courts.
  • At any point in time, one in four fathers do not live with their children (under 16), most often against their wishes.
  • Only about 50% of fathers will live with their dependent children continuously to their 16th birthday.
  • The bar is being ever lowered on what is regarded as sexual assault by males on females, whilst the penalties are becoming more severe. The result is that women have the power to destroy a man for minor offences or issues of perception.
  • In contrast, sexual assault of males (of all ages) by females remains largely unrecognised by society and the criminal justice system alike.
  • Grossly inequitable treatment of men and women in the criminal justice system. Three out of every four men in prison would not be there if they were treated like women.
  • Whilst we hear a great deal about the “pay gap”, the power must surely reside with who spends the money. Women certainly spend at least as much money as men, whoever earns it.
  • For full time workers under 40 years old the gender pay-rate gap is negligible.
  • For part time workers the gender pay-rate gap is in favour of women (about 5%).
  • Men work 609 million hours per week at paid work compared to women’s 394 million hours. Men also work for more continuous years over life. Hence, men work more and are home less – this is contribution, not privilege.
  • We hear a great deal about men not pulling their weight as regards domestic and childcare chores, but studies show that totalling all work, men and women work about the same number of hours.
  • Men are 96% of workplace fatalities, and are far more likely to suffer injuries at work or to get work related diseases than women.
  • Women seek “equality” with men only in desirable occupations (consultants, professors, Board members, MPs, etc) not in the jobs that 99% of men do – the nasty, dirty, dangerous jobs that lead to the above fatalities.
  • Men (or boys) are more likely to be the victims of violence than women (or girls) – despite the constant exhortations that we should “end violence against women”.
  • Around 90% of homeless rough sleepers are men.
  • 99% of war deaths and casualties are men.
  • Female genital mutilation is illegal and universally reviled. Male genital mutilation is regarded as perfectly acceptable and without disbenefit to the man (it isn’t). Half a million African boys killed or maimed in the last eight years by botched circumcisions goes unnoticed.
  • Female suffering is newsworthy, male suffering is not (e.g., Boko Haram – how many people know that their main activity is killing boys?).
  • There is a lack of action on under-representation of men in certain professions, contrasting with the huge focus on assisting women into areas where they are under-represented (e.g., STEM, though women now dominate in STEMM).
  • Male-only organisations have systematically been obliged to accept females, whilst the reverse is not true.
  • History is being systematically misrepresented as gendered oppression, rather than the oppression of the many, of both sexes, by the few, of both sexes. Both sexes had to fight for the vote; both sexes had to fight to be educated.

For a little more detail on these issues read the Introduction to the Disadvantages faced by Men and Boys.