Caring for a suicidal patient led Professor Michael Addis to study and develop treatment for men with depression.
Q. What do you see as the strengths of the psychology department at Clark?
Professor Addis: Faculty are highly accessible to students. It’s very easy for students to talk with us during class, after class, in our offices, or at the Bistro. Our faculty are at the cutting edge of knowledge in their fields, whether it’s about child development, mental health, socio-cultural issues, cultural psychology, language, marriage, or human motivation. It’s all there, and faculty, in addition to being accessible, are leaders in their fields. They have first-hand knowledge that extends well beyond what you read in a textbook. The faculty is also a really diverse group of people in terms of their interests. We’re probably the only research university in the country this small that offers both qualitative and quantitative approaches to psychology, which is to say approaches that are interpretive and more individual-oriented, versus approaches that are numeric and study larger samples of people. That’s a real strength of the department. But the main thing that’s hard to get across about our department is the thing that’s hard to get across about Clark–what it means to study at a small research university. It is different. I think what it gives students they often don’t realize until later on.
Q. What else would you want incoming students to know who are interested in majoring in psychology?
Professor Addis: Some students come in thinking it’s going to be an easy major. But we treat psychology as a discipline, as a social science. It’s about the systematic study of the human situation. That’s what we do. We want students to write and think and conduct their own research and contribute to the field. This is rigorous. One of the questions that I get when I do open houses for parents and students is about research. What do you do with research? Does it have any effect on the world? What happens to it? What does it mean? I tell them that we take the information that we collect and write papers that go in journals for other researchers to read. But we also talk to the public. For example, last month I gave a talk to the Massachusetts Society for Suicide Prevention on ways to recognize stress in men, and how to talk to men about mental health without irritating them and creating all that resistance. We go to national and international conferences. Sometimes students go with us and help present papers. These things influence policy, in our case, health care policy. We write books for professional psychologists, but some of our faculty have written books for lay people. I’ve published a a workbook on depression. Wendy Grolnick has written about parenting. So this knowledge actually goes somewhere and has an effect.
Q. What sorts of clinically-oriented and research-oriented experiences are available to Clark students studying psychology?
Professor Addis: Many of the psychology majors engage in some sort of clinical experience while they’re here. It might be interning in a traditional mental health setting working with children or adults, or working in education. There are lots of opportunities to do that. But students also need to know that treating people with mental health concerns– traditional therapy and counseling–requires graduate level training. What we’re trying to do is have students leave Clark with both a broad and a deep understanding of psychology as a whole discipline, that they can then take to graduate training if they want to, or something else. Research is the way we generate the knowledge that informs clinical practice and our understanding of how the human mind works. I tell students that research is about generating the knowledge that ends up in the books that you read. So if you go to a college, not a research university, you’ll read books that will be filled with references to knowledge that’s been generated. At a research university, that knowledge is being generated right there, and so students are actively involved in doing that. By virtue of being a small research university, it’s very easy for students to get involved in research with faculty. They can do it through course work, through independent study, or simply because they want to get involved.
Q. How did you become interested in studying psychology, and especially issues relating to men’s mental health?
Professor Addis: I grew up in a family of psychologists. My father was a social psychologist and our shelves were full of psychology books. I picked up Freud and browsed through that, and by the time I got to college, I knew that I was interested in becoming a clinical psychologist and working with people directly in a clinical setting. Then I went to grad school, and realized I had a real passion for doing research, writing, scholarship and teaching, in addition to the clinical work. When I was finishing up grad school I spent a year working in an inpatient unit in a psychiatric hospital, where people come when they have crises in their lives. Often people would come in after they’d made an unsuccessful attempt to take their life. Each morning the clinicians would gather as a team and go through the records of the people who’d come in the night before. On one particular morning, I was struck by a man who had attempted to take his life, and had no psychiatric history at all. There was nothing in the record to indicate that he’d ever had a problem. When I interviewed him that morning, it turned out that he had run a very successful business, was very well known in his community, had a wife, kids, and everything just looked great. But what had happened was that, over a two year period, he had lost everything. His business had gone south, and no one knew that. He’d kept it from his wife and kids and friends. He’d gotten to the point where he just didn’t see any way out, so he attempted to take his own life. It didn’t make any sense to me. I didn’t understand how someone could get that deep into despair and not let anyone know. He started talking about being raised to take care of his own problems, and the importance of keeping a stiff upper lip and not appearing weak, and I realized this is the psychology of men and masculinity. I wondered if there was a field of study here. I looked at the research literature only to discover that there was very little. But I decided that it was probably not a field that would be wise to go into as an assistant professor. At that stage in an academic career, you want to study things that are popular so you have colleagues to work with. So I put this interest on hold for about seven years. Then, when I was tenured and promoted, I spent a year thinking about what do I really want to do study. Having the freedom to do that is one of the benefits of being an academic. So I returned to the psychology of men, and that’s what I’ve been doing for about six years.
Q. How do you go about studying these issues?
Professor Addis: There’s a practical side and a more conceptual side. The practical side has to do with trying to understand why men are so much less likely than women to seek help for problems in their lives. That’s true for virtually any physical or mental health problem you can think of. So we’re trying to understand barrier that men face and also design what we call interventions or brief educational processes that can help men find help for problems in their lives. The more conceptual side has to do with trying to understand the psychology of masculinity, and there are a lot of different ways to think about that. One way is to study how culture creates rules about manhood, what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable. As boys grow up and become men, they adopt some of these rules. There are differences in how much individual men have bought into those rules. Things like the importance of stoicism, physical toughness and that being a man means taking risks and never asking for help. That last is obviously relevant to my research. To study these issues, my research team advertises in the local community, via newspaper and radio, to find men who have significant problems that they’ve not sought help for. We ask respondents to come to the psychology department, where we administer questionnaires and conduct a series of interviews and videotaped interactions to look at different aspects of how they perceive the meaning of having problems in their lives. What does it mean to them to get help? Is it a threat to their sense of self to get help? Are they open to it? We gather all that info from the research participants and then we ask them to return a week later, at which time they’re given feedback based on what we learned. In the time between the first and second visits, we’ve sat down as a group-me, the grad students and the undergrads-and try to understand, based on the information that we have, what’s going on with each individual. Where is his resistance to getting help coming from? Then we tailor the feedback to reduce the stigma associated with asking for help and to provide corrective information.
Q. How many men have participated so far in this study?
Professor Addis: About 65, and our target is about 120. So we’re about half-way there.
Q. Have you reached any tentative conclusions yet?
Professor Addis: Several. As is often the case in research, things are more complicated than we anticipated. One of the things that we’ve seen is that it’s very hard to put people into categories. It’s tempting to say, this guy is a macho man and he doesn’t want any help. End of story. But what we’ve seen is that such is rarely, if ever, the case. We might see a man who looks stereotypically macho in some respects, and in other respects is very non-traditional. So a man might really value physical toughness and feel that being a woman’s man-kind of a playboy-is very important, but at the same time be very open emotionally, very close to his children, and able to shed tears when he’s struggling. So what does all that mean? It means that masculinity plays different roles for different men in different situations. So rather than thinking about how macho one guy is compared to another, we’re starting to ask how gender plays a role in each individual man’s life in a particular situation, such as the potential for seeking help.
Q. What is your opinion of the role of nature versus nurture in these gender issues?
Professor Addis: Actually, I’ve been writing a book proposal about this topic. I argue that the cultural debate about biology versus culture is a complete misnomer. It’s an interesting question, but what’s behind it I think is a question of blame and morality. In our culture, if something is caused by the body, we’re much less likely to hold people accountable for their behavior. But if behavior is caused by culture, we think people should be able to overcome it. That’s not to say the question is invalid. It’s very hard to separate biology from culture. When I teach abnormal psychology, students sometimes ask if depression is caused by the brain, or is it learned. Then I suggest that we do an experiment. I ask everyone to close their eyes and assume a tight posture. I turn off the lights and ask them to focus on the worst thing that’s happened to them in the last month. After about five minutes I ask them how they feel. People will say, I don’t feel good, or I feel down, and then I ask what caused that feeling. They might say that I caused it, because I told people to do certain things. But does that make sense? How could I cause a change in mood? But on some level I did. But on another level, when you do those things, the levels of serotonin in your brain drop. So is that the cause? Essentially, every human activity is both a biological and a cultural activity. For example, consider the hormonal changes that take place in adolescence. As soon as those hormonal changes take place and a boy begins to act a little differently, his environment responds differently, and when his environment responds differently, his physiology changes. It’s all linked.