This was the fourth Male Psychology Conference, held at UCL 23-24 June 2017. Credit to John Barry and Martin Seager for organising the event (again), under the auspices of The Male Psychology Network. In my opinion this was the best conference yet, and was also the best attended (around 80 people, though some came for just one of the two days).
If you don’t want to read the whole review, just scroll down to Naomi Murphy.
And after that to Paul Apreda.
The first Keynote speaker, the Right Hon. Norman Lamb MP, was late to arrive so Martin Seager made an impromptu extended introduction which usefully set the tone, making reference to the litany of male disadvantages and society’s current lack of recognition thereof.
The Right Hon. Norman Lamb MP, has a long record of speaking up for mental health issues in parliament and as a Minister, particularly as regards its lack of funding. He discovered from his own experience with his son, who suffers from OCD, that the legal right of choice regarding place of treatment does not apply to mental health. He injected a note of realpolitik in respect of the role of NHS targets in driving where the money goes. The Secretary of State and senior officers pore over the data on NHS performance against targets weekly – so if your thing, e.g., mental health, has no target, it gets no focus and hence little funding. In respect of the parlous state of the NHS generally, he commented (I paraphrase only slightly) that partisan politics gets in the way of making progress. In respect of suicide, he asked why we are not making the same progress in reducing it as we are in reducing the death rate from physical illnesses (a rhetorical question, I think, in view of what he had just said about mental health funding). He made reference to the Detroit model of ‘zero tolerance’ (my paraphrase again), the policy being to investigate every suicide. Apparently this is being adopted in some UK areas (e.g., Merseyside). He was asked whether there is an intention to fund research into the causes of suicide. He gave a politicians answer (i.e., “no” without saying so).
Dr Said Aris Tarabi “Second-Generation Pakistani Muslim Men in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT)”: Men in general engage less with psychotherapies than women, and this sex difference is even more pronounced in Muslim communities. We were told that “Islam is really important for 99% of Pakistanis”. No surprise there, but since the study concerned the second generation exclusively, one might question the significance of their identification as “Pakistani”. I think the message was that there are particular conceptual conflicts between “Western” CBT and Islam, which was neatly summed up by, “CBT says you are in control of your life, whereas Islam says that God is in control”. Hmm.
John Barry, Rico Fischer, Jordan Holbrook “How much does empathy vary by gender, culture and sense of wellbeing?” Unfortunately a large percentage of the responses to the survey used in this study had to be rejected on grounds of speed of completion indicating lack of sufficient care. Nevertheless, 51 valid responses were obtained (21 men, 30 women, average age early 40s). 15 vignettes were presented to participants, varying whether the scenario protagonists were male or female with different participants. Several of the vignettes showed statistically significant empathy towards the two sexes, male characters being blamed significantly more than female characters in identical situations. The authors claim that this is the first work on this topic, so the result is clearly of interest. However, I note that most of the vignettes did not produce a statistically significant gender difference, and I wonder whether a significant difference would emerge overall if all the data were combined.
Dr Ashley-Christopher Fallon “Revealing the man behind the patient”. This talk related to forensic mental health services in a secure unit in Birmingham. 88% of forensic mental patients are men. We were reminded that therapy for these patients was not voluntary, and “pharmacological intervention” was often the initial choice for the floridly distressed. The speaker made reference to the last male psychology conference in 2016 as being of some assistance in promoting the relevance of gender within his own workplace. There is a tendency for patients to be classified by their mental condition, e.g., “he is schizophrenic”, to the exclusion of a more rounded human perception, e.g., “he is a father and husband”. The relevance of a gendered approach is increasingly being recognised. Rather startlingly, 43% of the patients in this study were BAME.
Phil Turner took five minutes to shred the Duluth model.
Prof Marvin Westwood “Group treatment of combat stress”. This was essentially the same presentation as in 2016, but no worse for hearing it again. Marvin is from Canada. Last year I asked what we are doing in the UK for our veterans – see Kingerlee et al below for one answer. Whilst Prof Westwood’s therapeutic methods are clearly of great benefit, I railed rather at one piece of terminology. He noted that the military men whom he treats have an ethos which is traditionally masculine, being described by words like strong, tough, brave, self-sufficient and being disinclined to seek help, but strongly inclined to offer assistance to others. All this is true – and no doubt this mindset is indeed implicated in their PTSD (or combat stress injury, as he preferred to call it). But to label such characteristics as “hypermasculine” and “hegemonic masculinity” is a pejorative, in my view, and unhelpful. After all, the characteristics in question are obligatory in the military role, not optional. And “hegemony” means dominance. A soldier is essentially a servant, offering his body as a potential sacrifice to objectives which are his county’s, not his own. So “hegemonic masculinity” is strikingly inappropriate. “Sacrificial masculinity” would be more apposite. [No apology for assuming the male sex in this text. Prof Westwood’s clients were 700 men and 5 women].
Roger Kinglee et al “Developing the Veteran’s Stabilisation programme (VSP)”. This is the UK’s equivalent to Marvin Westwood’s programme, I guess. They use a combination of CBT and mindfulness-meditation. Unlike Westwood, they do use the term PTSD. They might benefit from considering avoiding terminology that sounds like failure, as Westwood does. (“I need treatment so I must be broken, therefore I am weak and hence a failure”). I didn’t have chance to question the authors on this, but I think they said that 33% of their clients were women. I note that this is grossly disproportionate to the 10% of the military who are female – and even more so in view of front-line hazardous roles still being almost exclusively a male province. Are women in the forces being damaged? Is there something to uncover here?
Ben Hine “But she can’t really hurt him, though, can she?” This was an update on Ben Hine’s studies on the topic of gender differences in perceptions of violence towards men and women. On this occasion he reported far less difference than in previous studies. However, he noted that the participants were strong skewed to his own undergraduates who had been studying gender in PV – and, in particular, deconstructing the Duluth model. So the participants were hardly representative of the general public. The study had attempted to control for physical size by specifying that both the men and the women in the scenarios were 5 foot 10 inches tall and 11 stone. I have my doubts as to whether this is really controlling rather than skewing. These instructions amount to “consider an average man and an abnormally large woman”. Hmm.
Katherine Crawshaw “Launch of a 5-year plan to influence men’s mental health”. Katherine, who has a marketing background rather than psychology, talked about the Time To Change programme within Mind and funded by the Big Lottery, Comic Relief and Dept of Health. The whole programme is not just about men, though men are recognised as a ‘difficult to reach’ group. She showed the ad “Be in your mate’s corner“. I have a difficulty with such things – but that’s probably because I’m an unreconstructed old fart. The message is positive.
Naomi Murphy “Are the histories of male prisoners really any less traumatic than those of female prisoners?”. Naomi Murphy is a psychotherapist working at HM Prison Whitemore, a top security prison housing serious violent and sexual offenders (men, obviously). Attending the conference with her were four of the specially trained warders who take part in the group therapy sessions. 83% of the offenders are white, with an average psychopathy score of 30.6 (out of a maximum of 40).
Despite the high standard of all the presentations, this was the stand-out talk for me – and, I think, for most people. Naomi observed that “It is now generally accepted that women prisoners often have a history of childhood neglect and/or abuse. Consequently, there is recognition that rehabilitation of women offenders will require some resources to be directed towards resolving issues arising from such a history and providing emotional support to women during imprisonment. The implicit message within such a narrative though is that female prisoners differ from male prisoners in this regard; that women need a ‘special’ kind of service other than that required by men and that male prisoners are much less likely to have such needs“. Naomi asked the question – is this true, are male prisoners so different? She rightly left the answer to the end – but the answer was “the experience of male prisoners is not very different”.
Apparently almost all the psychotherapy staff at HMP Whitemore are women in their 20s. You might imagine that young women might be fearful of working with violent sex offenders. But the message from Naomi was rather different: these women professionals are very sensible of the threat they may pose to the men. You may need to read that again.
You might think that these men would be reticent about talking about their offending. But no – the men are generally very used to talking about their offending. What they find far more painful and difficult is talking about their own abuse. Naomi reported – and I checked this with her carefully over coffee – that 54% of these male sex offenders had been sexually abused themselves as children by women. Moreover, see emphasised to me in conversation that this was generally women acting alone – not typically in conjunction with a man, as the usual narrative goes. Mothers feature large in this abuse, but other female relatives, neighbours, baby sitters, etc., also feature. I have seen statistics like this before (see Section 1.6 of this review) – but, to be honest, I have always remained doubtful, No longer. This was information direct from a front line worker with no gender political ax to grind. It makes sense, of course. Women, in the form of mothers, are imbued with moral authority. Simply put, children learn right and wrong from their mothers. What is the message, then, if your mother behaves sexually with you as a child?
Naomi’s work is not yet published, but I urged her to do so.
Prof Rory O’Connor “The latest research on understanding and preventing suicide”. I was unconvinced that Prof O’Connor had actually tackled causation in the sense that us ordinary folk would understand (e.g., “he killed himself because he’d lost his house, his wife, his family, his job and was homeless, unemployed and had no hope” – that sort of thing). However he did elucidate the progress from depression to ideation of suicide and then to actual attempts at suicide. Only a fraction of those who ideate actually make a suicide attempt, and the factors involved in this are impulsivity, lack of fear, tolerance of pain, and friends who have killed themselves. He shed no light on the dominance of men as suicides, only observing that men choose more lethal methods. He stated that only 25% of suicides had previously accessed clinical services (fewer for men). But he also said that 90% of suicides have a mental health problem. I do not understand how the latter can be known in view of the former. And I doubt that 90% figure – the suicide paradox implies that a large proportion of male suicide is not related to mental health issues. (In fact Table 7 of this USA source indicates only 39% of male suicides had a mental health condition, compared with 61% of women). Exogenous factors were notable by their absence from the discussion but are known to be highly significant – and more so for men than for women.
Matt Sheridan in a five minute talk explained that John Barry had ‘made him an offer he couldn’t refuse’ in respect of making a film about boxing. Matt also read out the link to the Male Psychology patreon site, which is: http://www.patreon.com/user?u=6618076. You’ll need to subscribe – but there is nothing up at the time of writing (25/6/17).
Anil Kumar “Coaching skills and compassion when working with men in distress”. Anil is well know as one of the leaders of the extensive Indian men’s movement. Whilst domestic violence is treated in a highly gender-skewed manner in ‘Western’/Anglophone countries, at least the letter of the law is ostensibly gender neutral (except for rape). In India it is otherwise. Domestic violence is recognised in Indian law only as an offence by men against women. The reverse does not exist as an offence. In India, the so-called ‘dowry law’ is subject to widespread misapplication (see Indian Penal Code Sections 304B and 498A). Designed to guard against the husband, or his family, abusing the wife by demanding dowry, these laws have been used to make false accusations in enormous numbers (millions). It used to be the case that the accused man – and often members of his family as well, including women – would be sent straight to prison whilst the case was considered. This practice, Anil informed me, has now stopped. However, the abuse of the law has not. It is being used as a form of extortion, with the wife – and often the wife’s family – reducing the husband and his birth family to penury via ‘compensation’ awards made by the courts. Cases of suicide of the husband, and sometimes the husband’s parents and/or siblings, are common – virtually every week there are cases. As Anil put it: India is just like everywhere else – but bigger and worse. Anil has now coached 4000 men in India over the last 12 years. His door is always open – literally, as he frequently offers housing to those made homeless.
Anil is giving a whole day seminar on coaching skills for men in distress at UCL (London) on Tuesday 27th June 2017. Book here.
Paul Apreda “Suicide: the role of family courts”. Paul Apreda is National Manager of FNF-BPM Cymru (Families Need Fathers, Both Parents Matter in Wales). His message was essentially that the Family Courts are a broken system, despite being led by a reasonably sympathetic President (Sir James Munby). The chief villain of the piece is CAFCASS, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service. Unfortunately, Paul told us, he could not reveal the confidential figure provided by CAFCASS Cymru regarding the percentage of private law cases involving allegations of domestic violence (I can: 45% in 2016, see here).
There is no doubt that there is a correlation between family breakdown and men’s suicide. Long-time members of F4J have many anecdotes testifying to this. But, more importantly, there are several good academic references linking partnership breakdown with suicide, and showing that the adverse effect is strongest in men. [For convenience I have today added further references on this topic to my earlier post Men, Prisons, Separation, Suicide]. Rather than rely only on cold statistics, Paul made reference to one of the written responses in the recent Welsh Dad’s Survey, 2017,
I never stop thinking about taking my own life. There is NO help available. I just want to share my daughters’ lives, that’s all. I don’t want to be told I’m depressed etc etc. I know that. My life has become totally impossible. I never did anything wrong. I have lost my entire family who have chosen to believe my Ex’s lies and my children’s not wishing to see me being my own fault. I am completely alone and will almost certainly kill myself at some point; which, as all the mental Health specialists acknowledge, would be a perfectly rational and reasonable thing to do. Its only about….when?
So, here we have a man telling us he is on the brink of suicide. The survey was completely anonymous, of course. But Paul told the audience he had a pretty good idea who this man is – and there is nothing he can do to help him. This is what I meant by ‘exogenous factors’.
Anyone with an interest in men’s issues – and this will include everyone at the conference – will be interested in reading the results of the Welsh Dad’s Survey, 2017 organised by Paul, perhaps especially the written evidence from the men completing the survey. It was noticeable that this year (2017) many of the responses have shown a rather more positive aspect than in previous years. The health and education areas have always received a good crit. But the endemic anti-father bias persists in the courts, in CAFCASS and in the perception of DV. Even here, though, there are individuals who buck the trend and this needs to be recognised. I cannot resist including some remarks made by fathers, illustrating what they are still up against – for more follow the above link.
My GP laughed- no, scoffed would be a better word, when I broached the subject of the emotional abuse I had suffered and told me it was nonsense. However, her colleague, whom I saw more recently, was more empathetic – But there is nothing they can do. Critical Care Team at Llandough who saw me on the night of my suicide threat last autumn and Mental Health team at Royal Glam who saw me more recently were both wonderful, empathizing with my pain and confirming I was perfectly sane and they understood my level of distress.
From the beginning even when I was still with my child’s mother my opinion and questions were disregarded and ignored by GPs and midwives. I’m very knowledgeable about birthing and did lots of research, I asked the midwife about third stage intervention prevention and she literally scoffed ignored my genuine and reasonable question and carried on talking to my partner as though I wasn’t there.
The pressure on fathers is immense. My wife had help with her post-natal depression (PND) but I have received no help at all with the stresses associated with coping with work, childcare and looking after a wife with PND. Fathers are forgotten about. We are told that a modern man is sensitive and it’s ok to show emotion yet we are, at the same time, expected to cope with all the family’s issues and just get on with it. It’s no wonder suicide rates are higher in young men – the expectations are enormous.
Tamika Roper and John Barry “Is having a haircut good for your mental health?”. Answer: Yes, it is, big time – if you are a black man. Alternatively, if you are a women, white or black, it’s pretty good too. But for white men – nope. White men do not enjoy the barbershop banter much. I admit I’m a case in point. Should I admit my wife cuts my hair, or is that going to look too pathetic?
Sue Whitcombe “Parental alienation: the negative impact on child development and lifelong psychological distress”. I had heard Sue talk only very recently at the Fathers and Fatherhood Cross-Party Group meeting in the Welsh Assembly, but was keen to listen again. Parental alienation is primarily a child welfare issue – in fact, it is psychological abuse of the child in severe cases. Sue quoted Sarah Parsons, Assistant Director of CAFCASS, as saying that 80% of the most challenging cases involve alienation. Sue estimates this to equate to about 9,000 cases per year. (I presume this means in England & Wales).
It is not, per se, a child custody issue, but obviously becomes entangled in child custody issues. “Statutory agencies and professionals are all too often complicit in perpetuating alienation through a lack of knowledge and understanding“. Only relatively recently have the courts and associated agencies accepted the clinical existence of alienation. Karen Woodall exploded in outrage recently after an oaf (her word) in a Scottish court refused to recognise the existence of alienation.
Either the mother or the father can be the target of alienation, and either can be the alienating parent. In that sense it is not gendered. But it becomes gendered because the courts are gendered. Because the mother is the resident parent in 95% of cases, this means that it is overwhelmingly fathers who are alienated. Claims of alienation therefore attract the wrath of the feminist lobby since they are seen a patriarchal tactic to control. Indeed, Sue Whitcombe started her talk by noting (amused) that she had been accused on twitter of being a “patriarchal handmaiden”. Well, if she insists on telling the truth about false allegations, she will get called names. She considers 67% of her cases to involve a false allegation against the partner, and 81% false allegations of abuse against the child.
Luke Harvey “Rites of Passage events and ongoing mentoring for teenage boys”: This was a presentation of the Journeyman programme. It is a spin-off from the US Boys-to-Men programme and has links to the Mankind Project (not Mankind Initiative). Hmm. Struck me as being an attempt to compensate for not having a father. Why not have a father instead? Or, rather, why not have a father and a family embedded in a society in which the boy’s friends also have fathers, the totality of which comprise a male environment? After all, you need a community to be initiated into – and a community is more than a mentor or a weekend event. Well meaning though these sorts of initiatives may be, I see them as symptomatic of a social lack rather than as an entirely valid replacement for what is lacking.
Dr Andrew Briggs “Three outcomes for boys with absent fathers”. Andrew Briggs attempted to read out three case studies, but time was against him. His material was full-on psychoanalysis, and so rather hard work for the non-therapist. I sensed that the audience would have liked more. I may be grossly misrepresenting what he said (and am certainly grossly over-simplifying) but I think the message was that ADHD, self-harm and sexually inappropriate behaviour can all be manifestations of father absence.
Leah Jewett “Feedback on the Conference”. Leah Jewett has been with the Guardian for 17 years and is now in the Women’s Equality Party (WEP). Her specialist area is Sex & Relationship Education (SRE). Hmm. She gushed all sorts of fine sounding words, in amongst which she told us that she wants to be involved in helping men and boys express their feelings. They do, Leah, they do. You’ve just been exposed to two days of it. In reference to some of the DV talks, she told us (brace yourself) that two women per week are killed by their partners. Well, that would be quite accurate if re-expressed as two people per week are killed by their partners, the distinction between the two statements being a good illustration of what the conference has been about. Clearly no communication there then. Surprise. She also told us that Mr Corbyn is a really good positive male role model. Absolutely no taint of politics there then. (We had been free of politics completely up to that point). And in Q&A, a questioner asked her if she thought the Brexit vote might have been different if the youth vote had been greater – and specifically whether she thought boys were more politically apathetic? I was gritting my teeth. An unpleasant episode in an otherwise very pleasant weekend.
Kevin Wright “The use and benefits of expressive writing in treatment of PTSD”. Whilst I don’t suffer from PTSD, thankfully, I can readily agree that writing is therapeutic, viz this blog.
Martin Daubney “The portrayal of men in the media”. Martin is a good presenter and didn’t disappoint. I was familiar with the points he made, obviously, concentrating essentially on misandry. He exposed one of his approaches, namely to turn those digs at men into positives. He believes he sees the beginnings of a change in society, dating the turning of the tide to Jess Phillips’s sneering at the suggestion of a debate on men’s issues in 2015. He made a plea for data or studies on men’s or boys’ issues which he or other journos can publish.
In conclusion, an enjoyable weekend and very successful conference. I look forward to next year’s.