In a world where men are expected to cope with whatever is thrown at them, one psychotherapist is taking a dynamic approach to the problems of ‘normal’ men and has even set up a men’s group. ANDREA BUSFIELD meets someone determined to get Men’s Work done
Cyprus has one of the lowest suicide rates in the world, but there is one statistic the island shares with every other country – most people who commit suicide are men. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), suicide is the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45 in the UK, with three times as many men than women taking their lives. In Australia, that figure rises to 3.5. In the US, men are four times more likely to kill themselves.
In Cyprus, the last official figures relating to gender and suicide rates revealed that of the 40 people who took their lives in 2015, 31 of them were men. That’s more than seven out of every ten suicides. It’s a staggering statistic, but one that psychotherapist Brendan McGrath is fully aware of and unsurprised by.
“Men are conditioned to believe that strength comes from holding everything in; that being a man means standing up the plate, getting things done, never asking for help or support. Reaching out is therefore seen as a weakness because men are expected to cope with whatever life throws at them, by themselves, and it’s sad because it results in a lot of broken men.”
The reasons cited for Cyprus’ low suicide rate, in comparison to the rest of the world, include the island’s strong tradition of family, the sunny weather and the smaller distances between people which lessens feelings of loneliness and isolation.
However, where women show a greater willingness to share problems, men tend to suffer in silence – and this is something Brendan wants to address because not only has he been there and done that, he’s had the therapy and come out the other side a “better man”.
Originally from Dublin, Brendan has lived in Cyprus for the past two years with his wife Amanda. Having bought a townhouse nine years ago in Paphos, the couple had originally intended to keep the property as a holiday home. However, with each successive visit they fell deeper in love with the island and decided to leave London sooner than planned and before they were too old to fully enjoy the experience.
Brendan has utilised his skills, opening a private practice providing individual, one-to-one counselling to both sexes as well as offering specialised group work programmes for men. “Amanda and I could have moved here and taken things easy, but I’ve no intention of retiring any time soon – I love work too much,” Brendan said.
For many years, he worked at senior management level in the health and social care sector, primarily in the field of drug and alcohol treatment. After becoming interested in psychological interventions for young people and adults, he explored complementary therapies and studied to be a shiatsu practitioner. It was then that he was advised to think about counselling.
“I first looked into person-centred counselling, but I wasn’t that taken with it,” Brendan explained. “There wasn’t enough depth. It was more about listening skills, empathy, understanding and allowing the person to be at the centre of the therapy, which doesn’t give the therapist much scope for interaction.
“I found I preferred a more psycho-dynamic approach; helping clients to connect past issues with what was currently happening in their lives. This approach involves looking at all the unconscious elements of behaviour that have been repressed or perhaps denied, but now influences present-day behaviour.”
While most people might associate a need for counselling with past issues involving violence or abuse, Brendan says that many people actually find themselves struggling as a result of seemingly normal behaviours that have stunted their personal growth as well as their ability to communicate.
“For example, somebody might have difficulty expressing their anger due to a message taken on board in childhood such as ‘just be quiet’ or ‘don’t you dare speak back to me’,” said Brendan. “As a consequence, they tend to keep quiet, or even silent, which can be frustrating for partners. Yet, this silence might hide a whole raft of childhood issues that need to be uncovered.
“All this happens at an unconscious level, but then, as the person develops and grows up, it can become a real problem. People can find themselves exploited or taken advantage of. They might even be treated as a doormat because they are seen as somehow weak because they can’t express their anger or their opinions out of fear they will be invalidated or unacceptable. This is the unconscious element that needs to be worked on; this fear of expression.”
After completing counselling training, Brendan went on to set up his own practice in London in 2008, offering counselling, psychotherapy and training services for individuals and organisations. However, he credits an “experiential weekend” back in 1997 for giving him the self-belief to pursue his ambition to help people.
Called the New Warrior Training Adventure, the weekend was run by the Mankind Project. The initiative continues today and Brendan now plays an active role in the movement more generally known as Men’s Work in which men come together to make the world a better place by doing “the difficult work of waking up, growing up, and showing up”. Brendan describes the training weekends as a rites of passage for the 21st Century.
“It’s quite daunting in the initial stages because it’s about going down into your emotions. You’re then presented with a serious emotional challenge, along with some more physical stuff, before reaching the lifting phase where you are put in touch with the repressed part of your psyche. This is how you get an understanding of what is affecting particular behaviours in your life.”
For Brendan, a lot of his own personal issues stem from the early death of his mother when he was six years old. “I was brought up by my dad. I had five brothers and a sister and we all lived in the same house with my grandmother and grandfather.
“My dad was a good man and a good father, but he was also an angry man and he had difficulty containing his anger. Although he wasn’t violent, he did have a tendency to shout us down and he was self-deprecating. I think when my mum died a part of him gave up and he couldn’t see anything positive about the world. So, if any of us, myself or my brothers talked about wanting to become doctors or lawyers he would have this look of resignation on his face that basically conveyed the message ‘it’s never going to happen’.
“I found out later in life that my father’s expressions, how he was and his general demeanour actually had a profound effect on me. I’d taken on a lot of him unconsciously, leading to me thinking I couldn’t do this or that. I came to realise that was my father speaking through me.
“As I wanted to get to grips with that realisation, I got into Men’s Work and later trained as a counsellor and psychotherapist. But I had to do my own therapy first and I was in therapy for seven years, which gave me a very good understanding of who I am, what I am and why I am like I am.”
Of course, part of the battle in getting men to open up is the persistent attitude towards therapy that it’s an avenue for the weak, especially among older men.
“In the States therapy is openly accepted, it’s almost a badge of honour, and people will openly talk about being in therapy because it’s so common,” said Brendan.
“In the UK, culturally we are different. There is a more reserved manner and our upbringing creates a whole different set of dynamics. But things are slowly changing and we are starting to see men from all walks of life come to us for help and guidance, from businessmen, stockbrokers, lawyers and clergy to street cleaners and civil servants.”
Brendan said his major learning curve came from the leadership body involved in Men’s Work and he was hugely inspired by their ability to be open about who they were and what they went through to become the strong, intellectual, capable men he now works alongside.
“I came to admire them,” Brendan admitted. “There’s a lot that goes on in society that we know about – such as physical, sexual or spiritual abuse – but then there are a quite ‘normal’, run-of-the mill people who grow up in seemingly ‘normal’ families and to the outside world everything is how it should be. But the truth might be that these people might have had a tyrannical parent with a bad way of communication.
“The classic result is that these people then get involved with someone who is like that parent. So, the men end up with someone very similar to how their mum was, with the same imperfections and issues, and the women end up with men who were like their fathers, men who may have been shut down emotionally. And there it is happening again, but this time in their own relationships and a lot of people I see are worried that this will translate to their children; perpetuating the cycle of harm.
“Naturally, a lot of them refuse to look at the source of the problem because it’s painful. Children are hardwired to love their parents. However, once any realisation is made, progress usually follows.
“Thanks to my own therapy, I became more ambitious. I suddenly wanted to do well in life. I wanted a career and an education – I didn’t have an education when I grew up in Ireland – so, I went back to school. I gained a counselling diploma and then a health and social management degree. I experienced a lot of changes and it started with taking control instead of being defeated by life.”
Although Brendan is now based permanently in Cyprus and runs his own practice here, Counselling Páfos, he still returns to the UK to lead Men’s Work weekend groups which are becoming more popular as the idea of personal development becomes more acceptable.
“We saw demand start to increase quite significantly three or four years ago mainly because of the amount of people who had gone through the weekends in previous years so word of mouth and the internet helped spread their message.
“There are actually lots of organisations doing Men’s Work these days because there’s less stigma attached to it. Go back 12 or 13 years, if you said you were going to a men’s weekend the general perception would be that you’d be naked in a forest, sitting around a camp fire, chanting. Now those barriers are breaking down and people are beginning to be more curious about it.”
While Brendan says he may one day look at introducing the New Warrior Training Adventure to Cyprus, right now he is happy to simply make contact with other men looking for support from each other. To this end, he has recently established a fortnightly Men’s Group in Paphos to help guys connect with each other and make new friends. The two-hour sessions are purposely informal to allow participants to open up among a group of like-minded men.
“It’s not for me to change anyone,” said Brendan. “It’s for me to make them curious and question themselves, but the onus is not on me to change their lives. The onus is on them to change their lives, if that’s what they want, by talking through issues that then allows them to begin to develop compassion and empathy.”