Well, yes. Fewer men are choosing clinical psychology as a profession.
We’ve known this for many years, as graduate programs in psychology — both Master’s level and doctoral — have increasingly become female-dominated. In my graduate class of 1990, over 75% of the class was female. That percentage has only increased in the past two decades.
So Benedict Carey’s new article in the New York Times is a bit of a puzzler. The angle is that because of this gender discrepancy, a good male therapist is increasingly becoming difficult to find:
Researchers began tracking the “feminization” of mental health care more than a generation ago, when women started to outnumber men in fields like psychology and counseling. Today the takeover is almost complete.
And I say, “So what?”
I say that only because while I think everyone should have their choice of therapist gender, there’s virtually no research demonstrating that there’s any relationship between therapist gender, client gender and treatment outcomes. Since there’s no data, it’s hard to get too worked up about a trend that started over 30 years ago.
So instead of data, Carey trots out a few — mostly male — therapists to sound the warning bells:
“There’s a way in which a guy grows up that he knows some things that women don’t know, and vice versa,” said David Moultrup, a psychotherapist in Belmont, Mass. “But that male viewpoint has been so devalued in the course of empowering little girls for the past 40 or 50 years that it is now all but lost in talk therapy. Society needs to have the choice, and the choice is being taken away.”
Actually, without data, we don’t know that “the choice is being taken away.” We know that there are less male therapists than there were 30 years ago. But we don’t know whether that makes any difference. Are fewer men seeking therapy because of it? Are men who do seek therapy from a woman when they wanted to see a male worse off because of it?
These are good questions to ask. But without research, we don’t know the answers.
The single study Carey trots out didn’t look at these questions or the importance of gender in psychotherapy*. Instead, it looked at the relationship between traditional male assumptions of male college students and their attitude toward seeking psychological help (Levant et al., 2011). In fact, the study is moot on the gender of the therapist. It simply concludes:
These results also suggest that, when providing behavioral health counseling to men who endorse traditional masculinity ideology, one might be able to rely on the client’s willingness to follow health recommendations and engage in the proper use of health care resources. In addition, men who make work the top priority in their life might be amenable to interventions aimed at anger and stress reduction and the engagement in preventive self care.
Both men and women therapists can provide these sorts of interventions. But that didn’t stop Levant and Carey from concluding this study actually has something to say about the gender of the therapist:
Such a man on the fence about seeking treatment could be discouraged by the prospect of talking to a woman.
“Many men like this believe that only another man can help them, and it doesn’t matter whether that’s true or not,” Dr. Levant said. “What’s important is what the client believes.”
Indeed, many men may believe that. But we don’t have any research that suggests it is either (a) an actual impediment to seeking psychotherapy treatment or (b) that men who instead enter into a therapy relationship with a female therapist have worse outcomes than if they had entered a therapy relationship with a male therapist.
Without this important, scientific data, all we have are a bunch of opinions. Interesting, certainly. But not the same as the conclusions we could draw from actual data.
Indeed, Carey makes that very same point earlier in the article, before bringing up this unrelated study:
The impact of this gender switch on the value of therapy is negligible, studies suggest. A good therapist is a good therapist, male or female, and a mediocre one is a mediocre one.
That’s pretty much what we know — it doesn’t matter what gender therapist you have. If you want to be successful in psychotherapy, there are other, more important factors to focus on.
It’s like buying a new car. Sure, it would be nice to have it in your favorite color and be able to drive it off the lot today. But your favorite color isn’t available — you’d have to order a similar color and wait 2 months for it to come in. What if you can get the same car sooner, only in a different color? You might just be okay with making that choice.
So what has led us to the current state of affairs where we have a dearth of male therapists? The article presents some ideas as to why this happened — men left due to the decreasing salaries, apparently — and why men might prefer seeing a male therapist over a female one. Talking about certain topics is supposedly easier between two men — such as sex, aggression, self-doubt.
It’s an interesting article, despite its flaws… and worth a read.
Read the full article: Need Therapy? A Good Man Is Hard to Find
Levant, R.F., Wimer, D.J. & Williams, C.M. (2011). An evaluation of the Health Behavior Inventory-20 (HBI-20) and its relationships to masculinity and attitudes towards seeking psychological help among college men. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 12(1), 26-41.
* – The usual limitations of using a single study based upon a small group of college students at a single university also apply.