Men 1994

Way back in 1994 I had been unemployed for about 3 years. I didn’t blame anyone for this, as it was largely my choice. The system however, requires that everyone of age has to be gainfully employed. Even if there are 20 people chasing one job; which was pretty much the case in Liverpool at that time.

As I was now classed as long term unemployed, the department of employment had to up it’s game. So I was regularly called in and offered one of a number of alternatives to just sitting on my butt week after week; which was the assumed position of the jobless in many people’s eyes. To keep them happy, and off my back, I signed up to everything they offered me. It was a real education, honestly.

I have to thank them tho’, because one of those alternatives proved to be quite useful to me. It was a course in supervisory management. The qualifications at the end of it were bloody useless, but the whole experience was quite formative for me.

The tutors loved me. I was attentive and asked pertinent, sometimes challenging questions. I generally got good marks and comments on my weekly assignments. One thing that did annoy them tho’, was that I did persist with my own style of doing things; I’ve never been a sheep follower.

As part of the course they found everyone an “unpaid” position with an employer as close to the desired career path of the student as possible. However, with me there was a collective shaking of heads and sucking through teeth. I was someone with a carpentry background and I was asking to be placed with a counselling agency. Well, I thought, I might as well make them work for their taxpayers money.

As it turned out the placement officer struck lucky on his first inquiry. It seemed the manager of Barnardos family therapy unit in Liverpool remembered me from a course I did many years before and he asked if I had any qualifications. Of course I didn’t but what I did have was my mental health memoir, which I popped into a plain brown envelope and dropped off personally. It got me in.

The next scene is worth describing as it’s slightly surreal. I’m sitting in a, not unpleasant, room that has a huge mirror set into one wall. I can’t see through it but I’m confident that whoever is on the other side has a clear view of the interior of the room. In the room with me are a male and female therapist, a woman I later learned was their administrator and, looking rather uncomfortable and fish out of water as he was the only one in a suit and tie, my placement officer.

Introductions out of the way, I was advised that there was no way I would be allowed to meet their clients. Which was something I figured anyway. What they wanted was for me to conduct a small research project into the reasons that so few men presented for counselling. Their biggest client base being women and children. If men presented at all, they didn’t stay around for long and invariably dropped out after a couple of sessions. I have to admit I was a little bit flummoxed that people with their background and experience hadn’t figured this out for themselves; the answer seemed obvious to me as I said, “I don’t need to do any research as I know the answer, it’s because men are terrified. In particular men are terrified of risking being vulnerable.” Nevertheless they still wanted me to do the project and I was happy to commit to doing it for them. My placement officer was pleased we’d got a good outcome and couldn’t get out of there quick enough. I don’t think I saw him again after that.

There was one teensy flaw in the whole thing though. The research had to be completed in ten weeks and with almost zero funding or resources at my disposal. Oh, and the only financial reward I got was my unemployment benefit. I went home and after doing some serious thinking over the weekend, I came up with a plan.

I realised that without the time and resources to complete a serious research project, I was going to have to find some way of turning the whole thing to our advantage. It seemed clear to me that what they wanted to achieve at the end was more male clients coming through their door. So I began to think about whether similar agencies were having more success in other parts of the country, and if so might they be willing to share how they were doing things.

They managed to set me up with a small desk in the corner of their staff rest room, where I set up my own home computer and I was away. They already had a database of contacts and agencies up and down the country and enough petty cash to fund a small mailout. So my first task was to draft a short questionnaire. I advised that just four short open questions might get the best response. So we put our heads together to come up with the best options tailored towards obtaining the information we wanted, and posted them off.

There followed a nervous wait for the results to come in, and I was initially disappointed that I only achieved a forty percent return. Until somebody reassured me that it was actually a pretty good result as ten percent was nearer the average for a postal questionnaire that was entirely voluntary. I then spent quite a bit of time reading through every returned questionnaire, with the aim of extrapolating the key points we were looking for.

I think it’s fair to say that because we had allowed respondents to answer the questions in their own way, I hadn’t made life easy for myself. Every answer was different in some way. So the whole process was more like forensic detective work than straightforward analysis of data. To make things even more tricky, some of the responses had been hand written. Probably during a coffee break.

The draft report, which was accepted by the team, was tidied up and a copy was sent out to all of the agencies who had been good enough to take the time to respond. I also kept a copy back to submit as my final piece of work at the training agency. A couple of days later I was called in to a meeting with one of my tutors, where I was told that my report was not a suitable submission as an academic document, as it was not written in the correct style. I was stunned and angry. As far as I was concerned I should have been awarded an A+. I had intended the whole thing to be a marketing tool for men’s mental health services, as there was precious little going on in that field at that time. I had written it in a style that I hoped would draw the reader in and make them want to read more. These people were looking for a dry academic document that at best would have been given a cursory glance or at worst quietly slid into the waste basket. They had completely missed the point. I bid them goodbye and went back to signing on and waiting for the next client review at the job centre. Needless to say, I didn’t get my qualification for supervisory management.

The spin offs for me were worthwhile though. I made a number of new friends and contacts, my social network became larger, I gained confidence in subtle ways that I wasn’t even aware of, and with the support of the male therapist from the unit I set up a men’s support group that ran for nearly three years.

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