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Dr John Barry

The starving elephant will not be cured by a chiropodist

25 August 2017 | by Dr John Barry

There is a wise Hindu parable about how three blind men try to understand what an elephant is. The first one walks over and grasps its tail, and proclaims that an elephant is like a snake. Another grasps his leg suggests that an elephant is like a tree.

You can probably see where this is going: in focusing only on individual parts we often fail to see the full picture.

The elephant in the room in psychology is men’s mental health.

Male suicides around the world average about twice that of female suicides (Värnik, 2012) yet many psychologists don’t seem to notice.

Boys are falling behind in education all over the world (Stoet & Yang, 2016), yet many psychologists don’t seem to notice.

Even when these issues are pointed out to psychologists, many of them demonstrate ‘male gender blindness’ (e.g. Jankowski’s letter in July’s Psychologist) and instead of seeing the problem as a whole, they see the issues in terms of men who also belong to a minority groups by virtue of sexuality or ethnicity.

But if we split up male psychology into small sections, we risk being like the blind men and the elephant, failing to understand the whole picture.

It also begs the question of whether you have to belong to a minority group before psychologists are prepared to help you.

An important common denominator underlying the issues facing apparently disparate demographics of men is the blindness of the field of psychology to issues facing men and boysIf the elephant was being starved, then the solution would not be to call in a chiropodist to treat its skinny feet. The solution is to address the issue holistically and, as psychologists, we can best address male psychology issues by recognizing the totality of the problem, not just the various symptoms.

For the same reason, the Male Psychology Section sees the importance of collaborating with other Sections in order to find positive solutions. For example, educational psychologists might help solve the problem of male underachievement in school, and not only that of working class boys, but of all boys. Additionally, occupational and forensic psychologists might assess how much underachievement in school is related to general underachievement in life, and how much it might be linked to other issues such as homelessness, substance abuse, and criminality.

The roots of the problem are not ‘the patriarchy’, or testosterone, or ‘toxic masculinity’ (we debunked this in a debate at UCL recently). Potentially, the most immediately treatable root of the problem is male gender blindness and the associated gender empathy gap (Barry, 2016).

I say ‘potentially’, because although the concept of male gender blindness is easy to understand, many well-intentioned people find it incredible difficult to see the totality of the problems facing men and boys.

But we would like to invite those who are genuinely interested in men’s mental health to do something positive: join us in healing the problem at its roots.

Because as long as we fail to see problems such as male suicide as being a male gender issue, the problems will continue to fester.   


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