Action, Image, Meaning—Art Therapy and Men’s Mental Health

Jun 17, 2015 2:45 PM ET
Randy Vick is a professor of Art Therapy at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago

June is Men’s Health Month and while many recognize heart disease and prostate cancer as key healthcare issues for men, there are significant mental health issues that impact men and boys in very particular ways.

Despite the fact that gender roles in the U.S. are rapidly evolving, male identity is still strongly shaped by enduring notions of American masculinity. The lonesome, taciturn cowboy; the brave, dedicated soldier; and the aggressive, successful businessman are cultural stereotypes that often wield powerful, unconscious influence on how men and boys perceive themselves and their connections to others. Although these are generally noble attributes, these “tough guy” models privilege independence, boldness, and stoicism leaving little room for emotional reflection and vulnerability.

The lingering social stigma regarding mental health issues often makes seeking services difficult for both men and women, yet there can be an additional layer of shame for men who have been trained by society to “take it like a man.” Even though the pain of anxiety, depression, stress, or anger may weigh heavily upon him, the prospect of opening up and sharing his feelings with a therapist may be too daunting a hurdle to overcome. Higher rates of suicide and homicide among men (both as perpetrators and victims) reflect the high cost of this strategy.

Traditional verbal counseling operates on a model based in conversations regarding highly personal and potentially painful matters. While challenging for anyone entering therapy—male or female—this sort of intimate exchange is well outside the comfort zone of most men. I have always felt that art therapy offers an advantage over classic “talk therapy” in this regard. For men who are more accustomed to being active and productive rather than quiet and reflective, the action-based nature of art therapy may offer a more congenial starting place.

All visual art requires some form of interaction with materials. Gentle or destructive, rhythmic or chaotic, purposeful or exploratory, the spectrum of actions in the process of making art is as nuanced as any artist’s palette. In art therapy, the act of creating can be every bit as expressive as the final product—often more so. I have frequently worked with male clients who are intensely but wordlessly involved in the making phase of a session. A client may later speak at length about the meaning he connects with the creation process and the art product but as often the artwork carries a clear message that a long discourse may not improve upon. Such an abundance of silence may leave a verbal therapist stymied but in art therapy it can work because image and action communicate along with words.

Not only do males experience particular challenges when engaging in mental health services, there are specific diagnostic and social conditions that disproportionately affect men and boys. Autism, Attention Deficit, and other specific Learning Disabilities are all more common among boys. Risk-seeking behaviors in adolescent and young men result in higher incidences of substance abuse, motor vehicle deaths, and Traumatic Brain Injury; men suffer more serious workplace injuries and fatalities. Combat-related Post-Traumatic Stress is receiving a long-overdue response from the male-dominated military, and the nation’s vast criminal justice system is overwhelmingly male as well.

I have seen the enormous promise art therapy has for bypassing the reticence many male clients have regarding therapy. I believe it is the capacity to communicate and connect in nonverbal ways and the potential for a client to enter a therapeutic dialogue at his own pace that make this enhanced engagement possible. But regardless of the treatment approach, Men’s Health Month can raise awareness of the serious mental health needs of men and boys and our shared responsibility as a society to ensure they can be met.


Randy M. Vick, MS, ATR-BC, LCPC is a professor of Art Therapy at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In addition to his interest in the topic of men in art therapy (as both providers and recipients) Professor Vick’s practice and research focuses on art therapy in mental health, rehabilitation, and disability studio settings. He has served on the boards of several professional associations and journals and is the 2015 recipient of the Honorary Life Member award of the American Art Therapy Association. RESOURCES Men’s Health Network Vick, R. M. (2007). The boy is father to the man: Introduction to the special issues on men in art therapy. Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 24(1), 2-3. DOI:10.1080/07421656.2007.10129363 Your Head: An Owner’s Manual