MensLine Australia recently sat down with Leon, a social worker with almost 30 years’ experience, to get his perspective of the challenges of seeking help for men and to get a guy’s perspective of working in the traditionally female dominated profession. Having spent time in the military, statutory and voluntary sectors, Leon knows a thing or two about talking to men about their challenges!
Overcoming the barriers
MensLine (MLA): What led you to choose social work as a career?
Leon (L): I had a tough childhood, growing up in a family impacted by mental illness and poverty. I saw many people coming to try to help us, and I guess the inspiration or appetite sprang from there to work in the social work or altruistic profession. My lived experience influenced my choice but I also thought that the resilience and insights I developed could be put to use helping others.
I started off my social work career in the Navy, dealing with enlisted people and their families. That was a challenging environment, as I dealt with issues ranging from work stress, financial concerns, family breakdown, relationship issues and bereavement through to issues arising from the FIFO nature of service such as fathering from a distance and family isolation. Post Traumatic Stress was also a common, yet underestimated feature of service life.
From there my career took me to children’s charities, helping children leave care and subsequently, child and families social work in the UK and in Australia. After many years spent at ‘the coalface’, I now play more of a behind the scenes role, trying to implement and influence policy change, to improve outcomes for clients.
MLA: In your experience, what are the social and emotional barriers to seeking help for men and improving their lives?
L: It’s a bit of a generalisation but it still holds true today, men tend to be OK with their mates but are often reluctant to seek help from professionals. It’s still a challenge for most blokes to even go to the GP, yet alone seek help with emotional issues from a professional. As you can imagine, that reluctance was even more pronounced in the military culture. Men are raised with the expectation to be strong and not need help, but there are times when all of us could do with someone to talk to and share the challenges that life throws at us.
There’s definitely more reluctance from men to open up and share their thoughts. More traditional and formal helping environments tend to make this even more difficult. That means people and organisations providing help for men need to be creative about how they engage with differing groups of people. A service that wants to engage men needs to understand and target their client group with imagination and respect.
MLA: How do you encourage men to open up? What techniques have you found to be effective?
L: Traditional methods of counselling don’t always work for people. I’ve found that simple things like kicking a ball around, having a coffee or talking to them during a car journey is less confrontational, helps ease the tension and allows guys to talk more freely.
I try to be mindful about how difficult opening up might be when I’m providing help for men. That can be simply stating ‘this must be very difficult to talk about’, which starts the conversation off a little easier as the focus is then on the difficulty of talking, rather than the problem itself. It could also be asking if the venue is OK or if there is a better place or time to talk.
It’s all about respectful partnership engagement. The person is the expert on themselves and what is working and failing, not the social worker or counsellor. There is always the temptation to ‘rescue’ and try to fix or solve the problem immediately – the key is to resist that impulse and hear them out first. Recognise where they’d rather be and try to meet them on their patch, both physically and emotionally. Having a ‘safe space’ is a vitally important concept. Building trust enough to allow free exchange usually take a couple of engagements, so social workers need to utilise a range of approaches according to what’s presented.
Sometimes it is necessary to sit with their distress for a while to help them find the underlying cause of things. Take your cues from them and be mindful and attentive in your engagement of someone in distress. You can’t always resolve matters but sometimes just listening helps people find their own resolution.
If I can also show that I might be able to help resolve the immediate tension through practical, real-world action, then that can help build trust that can then lead to a deeper engagement.
MLA: What are some of your tips to encourage people to seek help for men?
L: Trust is the most important thing. Find someone you trust that will give you honest feedback, not someone who just tells you what you want to hear or reaffirms where you are stuck.
If you’ve got an issue, explore it with someone – a mate, family or consider talking to a professional. There are lots of different ways to seek help nowadays – face to face, phone or online chat or a variety of helplines. Find what works best and do it on your terms. Find your safe space and comfort zone with an individual or organisation who will work at your pace.
Also recognise that having troubles is very normal – 1 in 4 Australians experiences some type of mental health issue in the course of their lives and all sorts of life events can act as triggers for the likes of anxiety and depression.
MLA: Do you have any examples of men who struggled to open up… but then managed to turn a corner?
L: There are many in my experience. In one example a few years ago, I persevered in developing a relationship with an angry ex alcoholic father who had struggled in ‘the system’ for a long time.
With perseverance over 18 months, working at his pace and not reacting to his anger, I helped reunite this father with his 12-year-old son who had been languishing in foster care. I was motivated by the mutual love and longing both these reluctant males had for each other, but needed the father to demonstrate he had turned a corner, could manage his anger and emotions and be an appropriate carer and role model for his son. This reunion has been successful for both parties and offered this child a loving and connected relationship with his only available parent.
MLA: What do you see as the most common issue for men in today’s world?
L: Anger blocking access to support and help for men. Anger against a person, against ‘the system’, against the helping organisation and the like. It acts as a barrier that prevents them from getting help, that presents more often in men. Anger is part of a natural defence mechanism that projects frustrations out onto the world around them and is part of the ‘fight or flight’ instinct that we all have. If people have trauma, they can be locked in a cycle of fight or flight. In general, boys tend to act out this out more and that continues into manhood, especially if they have no one to talk to. They are the people I worry the most about.
Developing resilience and mindfulness is crucial, to find more productive ways to understand ourselves and paths to deal with our issues. Developing assertiveness and managing anger greatly helps these efforts.
MLA: How you do deal with the complex social issues that you are confronted with?
L: I am able to call on extensive life and professional experience working with people in distress in a variety of contexts and cultures. My experience has helped improve my empathy for service users and my capacity to support people. I have developed personal resilience reflecting on my own troubled childhood living with family mental illness and poverty.
My military experience, with its emphasis on physical activity and comradeship provided me with two critical tools for managing the stress of my professional role: exercise and networks. I exercise regularly by cycling at lunch times and playing social soccer. The exercise gives me an opportunity for mindfulness away from the stress of work, increases my alertness and vitality ready to face the day’s challenges. My networks and social connections also play a big role in safeguarding my mental health – I value the company of others and have a good social life. I recognise the value of friendships and community connection in all-round health and happiness. Work life balance is an important element of self-care for everyone. No one has ever said on their death bed ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office’!
If you need someone to talk to, MensLine Australia professional counsellors are here to provide information and support 24 hours a day, seven days a week.