Mental health needs are pervasive among men, yet the share of men meeting those needs in mental health professions is low and declining. In this brief we analyze the trends in male employment shares in psychology and social work. Men account for the minority share of workers in mental health sectors, especially in subfields such as school psychology. Based on recent trends in professional education, the share of men looks set to decline still further. This runs counter to the goal of providing equitable mental health services. We also briefly discuss existing and potential interventions, including more male-friendly recruitment messaging and greater support for men seeking to move into a mental health field later in their career.
The escalating mental health crisis demands urgent policy attention. While many challenges are not specific to either gender, there are some that disproportionately impact women or men. For example: women are more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety or depression, whereas men are likely to have substance abuse disorders and are four times more likely to die from suicide. As Jonathan Haidt documents in a commentary for AIBM, adolescent girls are much more likely to report depressive episodes, while adolescent boys are more likely to be pessimistic about their future. This data paints a concerning picture of the mental health of both women and men, one that demands a more gender-sensitive approach to mental health practice and policy.
Boys and men are currently much less likely to receive treatment for mental health conditions. As shown in Figure 1, in 2022 27% of women reported receiving mental health treatment in the previous 12 months compared to only 16% of men.
It is possible that this care gap reflects differences in the relative risk of underlying mental health problems; in other words, that men have better mental health than women. But there are reasons to be skeptical of this claim, including men’s high rates of suicide, lower rates of health insurance, and low rates of screening for mental health problems among boys and men. Moreover, there is strong evidence that socialization and norms contribute to men’s reluctance to seek out the care they may need. The policy challenge is clear: we must lower the barriers for boys and men accessing mental health care. A key related goal is to ensure that boys and men see therapy or other mental health care as being just as appropriate for themselves as for the girls and women in their lives.
While women make up the majority of social workers and psychologists across the board, some specialist fields have even lower rates of male representation than others. Notably, subfields that focus on children and families tend to have a greater share of women.
There are some spaces where men are more represented. In a 2020 report utilizing survey data from recent social work graduates, men working as social workers were more likely to serve populations with mental health or substance abuse disorders than their female counterparts, even if women still made up the majority of the subfield. And there are some discrete cases where the share of men is much higher. For example, in California, men receive approximately 45% of substance use disorder counselor certificates and associate degrees, aligning more closely with the predominantly male client population they serve.
In psychology, gender representation also varies by subfield. Only 10% of master’s degree recipients who specialized in developmental and child psychology in 2021 were male, as shown in Figure 4. In counseling psychology, the largest subfield for master’s recipients, the male share is 18%.
Given the mental health needs of adolescents, male and female, the low share of male students in the school psychology field is especially troubling, coupled with the fact that, according to a survey by the American School Counselor Association, only 11% of counselors in schools are men.
The share of men studying in these mental health fields is as low or lower than the share working in them. Figure 5 shows the male share of upper-level degrees awarded in psychology and social work in 1991 and 2021. The share of advanced degrees going to men has dropped from 32% to 20% for psychology and from 17% to 12% in social work.
Some of the decline in the male share is due to the shifting gender composition of higher education in general. But the general trend in education does not explain the degree of gender segregation in these specific fields – which is much more severe than the gap in higher education in general (where women are 61% of master’s and doctor’s recipients). Similar to the dynamics of the labor market, the overall number of advanced degrees awarded in psychology, for example, has grown, but the number of men receiving degrees has variably declined or flattened since the 1970s. The decline in the male share in these professions looks set to continue in the absence of any corrective policy action.
There is limited research on the importance of gender representation in mental health care, and a lack of strong causal evidence for an unequivocal connection between men in mental health professions and improved male mental healthcare – or indeed the other way round (this is clearly an area where more research would be useful). Nonetheless there are some strong reasons why greater male representation could be important, including:
“Guys sometimes need to talk to a guy. They don’t want to talk to a woman about their pornography use. There are some areas that are really uncomfortable and shame triggering – like the fact that guys objectify women is not something that women like to hear about, and men know that.” – Daniel Ellenberg, former APA President Division 51 President, in The Guardian.
While the mental health crisis is in the headlines, the increasingly lopsided gender representation is not being directly addressed by policymakers or professional organizations. A partial exception is some attention to the need for more men of color in these professions. Early in 2023 the White House hosted a roundtable discussion on the mental health crisis among Black men. Arthur Evans, CEO of the American Psychological Association, highlighted the need to diversify the psychology profession, to ensure that it better represents society as a whole, especially in terms of race. The APA has also supported various workforce pipeline support initiatives, including a mentorship program focused on Black men. Linda Burton, the dean of UC Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare expressed similar concern over the lack of men of color in social work programs. With men of color overrepresented as social work clients, she wrote: “Black men need to be at the table to inform social policy and social programs.” She pointed to the new Social Welfare, Sports and Society Initiative at Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare that, among other objectives, aims to bring more men, especially men of color, into the social work profession.
There are some efforts overseas from professional and academic institutions to bring more men into the mental health workspace. In the U.K., the University of Leeds School of Psychology has started taking steps to address, or at least to acknowledge, the gender imbalance within the psychology profession.
And 28% of faculty in counseling programs reported efforts by their programs to recruit men, according to a mixed methods study of male recruitment in counseling. However, these efforts are not seen as effective – only 19% believe they are – and do not match perceived need. More than three-quarters of the educators thought additional steps were needed to recruit and retain more male students, and, hopefully, a similar share expressed interest in helping.
One notable field study experimentally assessed if male interest in social work jobs would change if the messaging candidates received included photos of men in the profession or a statement that large shares of social workers got excellent feedback. The working paper finds that “perceived gender shares do not affect men’s applications. Increasing expected returns to ability encourages men to apply and improves the average quality of the applicants.” These results suggest that emphasizing returns to ability, affirmation, and chances of success or reward might be an effective strategy in attracting male candidates.
In the absence of a robust set of tested interventions on male recruitment in these fields, we can look at existing data, surveys, and research from similar spaces to suggest some potential policy or programmatic pathways:
The truth is that very little is known about what might work to attract more men into these fields, but very little has been tried, let alone evaluated with a view to replication. Indeed the extent of the decline in the male share of mental health professionals is not widely understood. There are occasional encouraging stories of men bucking the trend, as reported recently in The Guardian. But the clear need here is to explore more systemic ways to attract and retain more men as providers of mental health care.
Thank you to Simran Kalkat for research assistance.
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