Boys in Mind Meets...
An Interview with Dr. Andrew Reeves
By: Kit Cooper-Harrison
My name’s Andrew Reeves and I’m a registered social worker and a counsellor/psychotherapist. I’m also a professor at a university where I teach counsellors and I was the Director for Colleges and Universities for the Charlie Waller Trust. It sounds a bit cliched but I always knew I wanted to do things that would make a contribution to other people’s lives. When I was 18, I volunteered and trained as a Samaritan. I worked with the Samaritans for some years. I was doing a degree in psychology at the same time but I absolutely hated it so I left after the first year. I worked as a care assistant with older people for a couple of years before training as a social worker and then trained as a therapist.
The most important thing our mental health needs is really good quality relationships with people. I trained to be a therapist because I wanted to help people around mental health through a talking therapy context and knew I needed training to do that. That’s how I came into the social worker role and the therapy role. My work has always been rooted in believing that if we can support people to talk about their problems then people can be equipped to make really big changes for themselves. Mostly my focus is on men’s mental health. I have a lot of young men and men across the age band who come to see me and I focus specifically on supporting people who feel suicidal.
There are many people who don’t want to walk through the door of a service because that feels really scary but are willing to connect online and feel in control of their space. I think there’s always going to be a need for face-to-face work. Being able to be in physical proximity with another person is really important. When people experience crisis there can be something really powerful in knowing that there’s another person physically alongside them. There are groups of people who might access therapy online when they wouldn’t have done otherwise. It can feel a bit safer and a bit more in control if you’re connecting with somebody in the online environment which is something that’s very familiar to people as opposed to walking into a counselling room where a lot of people have no idea what it’s going to be like. You’ve got to want to be there because you’ve got to be able, or at least be willing, to talk about the stuff that’s on your mind.
I think that at the moment society is still in the crisis. When people are in crisis, they generally focus on getting through it. They bracket off what they’re thinking and feeling as best they can and just focus on the practical day-to-day getting through. My fear is that as the lockdown begins to ease people will begin to engage with the trauma that they’ve gone through. That has risks in terms of mental health. I speak to a lot of people who are really anxious about going back into the world. Young people are anxious about going back into the world. We are bringing up a generation who are being taught that the world is unsafe and unclean. The mental health ramifications are long term. There’s a lot of talk about mental health but for a lot of people, and a lot of guys particularly, they’re not actively encouraged to talk about how they feel.
People can still find it really difficult to name how they’re feeling. To name that you’re feeling vulnerable or out of control or sad or indeed suicidal is still a massive leap for a lot of people. Therapy services and mental health services need to be more active in reaching out. If not knowing what happens in therapy is something that prevents someone from accessing it, then therapists need to go out and let people know what it’s like. Services need to rethink how they operate which can prevent a lot of boys and men from accessing them because they are usually framed within a feeling discourse. That can sometimes feel a bit intimidating if you’re going to access a service and you can expect to talk about your feelings when you have never been encouraged to do that.
There are charities like the HYPERLINK “https://www.samaritans.org/support-us/volunteer/” Samaritans and HYPERLINK “https://www.thecalmzone.net/get-involved/volunteer/” Calm where you can volunteer. Go and experience what it’s like to sit with somebody or be at the end of the phone or a zoom connection with somebody. At the Samaritans the training was absolutely fantastic, some of the best training I’ve ever had, and you are really well-supported. It’s such a brilliant way of not only building that skillset and confidence to do the work with others, it’s actually a really good opportunity for you to do some of your own self-reflection and make sense of some of your own feelings and experiences. It can be therapeutic as a volunteer for yourself as much as it is for supporting others.
Even though I’ve been a therapist for 30 years, it doesn’t mean to say that I can free myself of the pressures of what it’s been like to be brought up as male. I can be really aware of how I can shut up about how I’m feeling so I push myself to take the risk and tell people I trust what’s going on for me. I’ve set up loads of men’s services over time. I set up a men’s drop-in service at the university. It was where men could come along and speak to a male therapist. They didn’t need to book an appointment; they didn’t need to register for counselling. They could just drop in and talk in a confidential way. It quickly became one of the most successful services at the university. Given the right space and the right support and the right encouragement, boys and men can make really good use of services that are available to them.
Boys are taught to behave in a certain way from absolutely day one. From their family or from school or from the media or their friends, they’re taught to be stoic, to not cry, to not have feelings, to privileged thinking, to be successful. We know from research that in later life it causes major psychological distress both for themselves and problems for others in difficulties they have in relationships. I know that boys and men can use talking services really well when they’re the right sort of services. But I also know that in some ways, many are having to walk against the tide and the tide is the expectation of what it’s like to be a man. I’ve spent 30 odd years looking into this and encouraging other people to talk but when I’m struggling myself, I notice how naming that with somebody and saying I’m vulnerable or I’m struggling or I feel crap can feel shameful and I really have to challenge that embedded message. The bottom line is that embedded message is killing people because of the number of men who are dying through suicide. People are dying because they’re being encouraged not to talk. I’m really passionate about getting services right to try to turn that around.