Social Workers Focus on Work With Men

— Lyn Stoesen, News Staff

As researchers and practitioners have explored gender roles in society, many have begun to focus on the socialization that men experience and the ways it can affect their physical, social and mental health. Social workers are among those recognizing the need to approach working with men with attention to the particular coping mechanisms they use when facing challenges.

First annual conference

The First Annual National Conference on Social Work With and For Men, "Caring, Sharing and Preparing to Serve," was held April 28-29 at the University of Alabama. The event drew about 100 participants. The conference was coordinated by professors Jordan Kosberg and Barbara Chandler, with support from the dean of the school, James "Ike" Adams.

Kosberg said this first conference was designed with a broad focus on social work with men, looking at general issues without targeting a particular group, problem area or practice setting. "We wanted to give folks a feel for the diversity of the issues, with the plan that subsequent conferences would focus on particular themes," he said.

Kosberg said that his interest in social work with men grew out his work in gerontology. "I began focusing on aging and older men and it blossomed into more of a lifespan perspective, looking at boys all the way to older men." He also co-authored, with Ike Adams, an article about social work and men in the Encyclopedia of Social Work, 20th Edition.

NASW was represented at the conference by Alphonso Gibbs Jr., who staffs the association's health disparities in end of life care project, and Rebecca Myers, special assistant to the executive director. Gibbs presented on "Men's Health: Why NASW? Why Not?" and chaired a session addressing social work education. Myers offered a welcome to participants during the opening session of the conference.

Men's culture

Lenard Kaye, a professor in the University of Maine School of Social Work, offered a plenary address at the conference. His session addressed "Providing Assistance to Men Facing Life Course Challenges."

Kaye told the News that he has had "an ongoing interest in gender issues, in particular the challenges that face men in both locating and utilizing services that can benefit them in times of need."

He said that through research, he and others have found that "men and women, for various reasons, experience human services quite differently.

"First, both bring a different mindset to their perception of the helping experience and the manner in which services are made available to them," Kaye said. "Very early on in life, at 3 or 4 years of age, men and women are prepared to deal with the challenges of life and the responsibilities of life in radically different ways.

"Men are socialized into expressing themselves in a very 'stiff upper lip' mentality," Kaye continued. "There is an inclination to minimize the problems they're experiencing, not to verbalize them in any extensive fashion, which plays itself out inevitably in ways that are deleterious to men's health.

"Practitioners are, more often than we would like to see, really not cognizant of their own potential biases and expectations concerning men," Kaye said. "Combined with men's inability to seek help, this is a recipe for failure. Many social workers are trained according to traditional models of therapeutic intervention, placing a high value on psychological probing, emotional expression and personal and cognitive insight.

"Men, on the other hand, go about life dealing with their issues with a concrete, problem-solving mentality," Kaye said. "There can often be a clash between men's styles of problem solving and the basic principles of traditional psychotherapeutic intervention."

Robert Blundo echoed Kaye's statements. "Research has generally shown that the more men adhere to the stoic male code of being in charge, being able to do things and not feeling pain, the less likely they are to seek out help emotionally or physically," he said.

Blundo is a professor at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington School of Social Work. He presented a paper at the conference on "Strengths-Based Coaching: Engaging Men in Social Work Practice" and authored an article on practice interventions with men in the Encyclopedia of Social Work, 20th Edition.

"One of the things I'm interested in is how to get involved with men and work with them," Blundo said. "Men very rarely come in [to a therapeutic setting] without having somebody push them — usually his wife drags the guy reluctantly into the office.

"My work is on how you initiate with men — it's a strengths-based solution focusing on work and that acknowledges the expertise of the person," Blundo said. "If men want to feel they are in charge and responsible, join that instead of fighting it or try to convince them otherwise."

Blundo notes that a solution-focused, strengths-based approach isn't limited to men; many women respond well to it, and many men respond well to traditional approaches. But, he noted, "men have a culture of dominance and a culture of silence and having to be in control. The idea is how to not threaten that position, but use it instead."

Families and communities

"When focusing on men, we're focusing on families and society as well," Kosberg noted. "Men who are stereotyped as absent fathers or spouse abusers, this can result from the fact that the problems they've faced are going untreated and unrecognized, and it magnifies until it results in adversity for members of their families and communities."

"If we start healthy families with a healthy male making healthy decisions, we can prevent other problems," NASW's Gibbs explained. "Too often we are working on issues that come up after the fact, rather than doing preventive work."

Gibbs noted that in inner cities, men may be undereducated, underemployed and under stress, which can lead them to make poor decisions. "These decisions have consequences," he said. "The people he has affected are then put in a situation where they need to depend on social services, and the male doesn't get the services he needs.

"We need to start with a male who makes healthy decisions up front," Gibbs said. To achieve that, social workers should focus on preventing violence and drug use, should address underemployment and incarceration and should work to combat unequal justice systems and resource allocation.

"Social workers are in a great place to address those issues, if they give the voice and attention to them," Gibbs said.

"There is no question in my mind that men of color have experience with particularly limited access to health care throughout their lives," Kaye said. "[A history of] discrimination in combination with an existing hesitancy to reach out and trust the offerings of professionals puts them at an elevated risk.

"Men of color who were traditionally raised have a particularly high risk of not receiving or being offered the kinds of services that really make a difference in their well-being," Kaye said.

But, he said, "men's resistance to asking for help transcends virtually any demographic variable That remains the overall challenge. It's not simply a matter of informing men of available services; research documents that, even once informed that help is available, men remain less likely to reach out for assistance.

"Our greatest allies are family and friends and the informal natural helping networks to reach men," Kaye said. "Men are more likely to obtain health care information from trusted friends and relatives than from professionals. Those informal supports serve as mediators in transmitting information received by health care professionals."

Looking toward the future

"I was very pleased with the conference and with the reactions of participants and speakers," Kosberg said. "It was our first, which made it all the more valuable and rewarding for us." Planning for next year's conference is now under way. It will again be held at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, on April 30 and May 1, 2009.

But while the conference was very successful, "much more work needs to be done in social work education," Kosberg said. During the conference, several papers addressed the recruitment of male social work students.

"Gender in social work education has been used mainly for female issues and studies," Kosberg noted. "Yet there are changes — I met several people who teach courses in social work programs on men, and I'm hoping we'll see more about that."

Kaye said he also hopes to see changes in the academic approach to social work. "We continue to see the lion's share of social work students being female, and I think their classroom teachers are still more likely than not to abide by traditional principles of intervention, which highlight psychosocial approaches," he said.

"I would like to see more in the way of solution-focused therapy offered, therapies that focus less on personal emotions and insight and more on the idea of consultation and problem-solving," he said.

"I think there are positive signs to suggest we're finally getting it, finally realizing that not everyone comes to the helping professional with the same mindset, history, experiences or values," Kaye said.

"Men are increasingly more expressive, and baby boomers in particular are evidencing greater levels of expression and ability to seek assistance and help in times of need," he said. "At the same time, evidence that specialized programs provided by health and human services professionals are being designed such that they can respond to the specialized needs of men."

Blundo said he also sees increased attention to social work with men. "It's not coming from a position of oppression or subjugation, but from a position that there's a culture out there that men live under, and as a result they aren't addressing the issues they need to address.

"We're trying to get men on the radar screen. We're not talking about oppression — we understand issues of power and patriarchy," Blundo said. "But they need to be reached in some way to make better lives for themselves and their families."