Family matters

It’s a man thing

How can we encourage men to access support groups, says Joss Smith

Adfam was set up by the mother of a drug user who was in search of support but unfortu­nately could not find any. This situation has been repeated over the last 29 years across the country and today there are many community family support groups set up by family members who have themselves experienced the impacts of drug and alcohol use on the family. 

In the large majority of these communities the groups are set up, facilitated and attended by women, with men significantly under represented. Adfam launched its Including Diverse Families project in 2007 and included ‘men’ as a diverse group to try and address this issue. However, across the country, men are still not accessing the support groups, one-to-one sessions and services family support offers.

Men – brothers, fathers, sons and partners – can be just as profoundly and adversely affected by drug or alcohol use in their family as women, but often respond in different ways. It is often the mother or female partner of a drug or alcohol user that will initially look for and access support. Male family members often either resist support or feel existing support provision is not appropriate for them, which leaves them feeling isolated. 

Many services experience difficulty in encouraging male family members to seek and access support. The family support sector is often perceived by men as being for women (and children) only. The disproportionate representation of women among staff and clients can lead men to think that support services will have a feminine atmosphere, or provide only a ‘tea and sympathy’ environment. Some services do have an overtly female focus and culture among staff and service users, and the term ‘carer’ is often seen as applying only to women and not to men.

Cultural and social norms, expectations of masculinity and an adherence to dominant notions of male independence, self-reliance and strength also have an impact. There is reluctance among men to admit to problems and seek help – men often feel that they have to fix the problem and do not want to be seen as not coping. Some support staff admitted that when supporting the mother they often ‘forgot’ to ask about the father and how they were coping. Sometimes the mother’s negative opinion of the father is unchallenged by staff, unaware of the family’s history, and others reported being discouraged to offer their support to men for fear of antagonising female service users. 

Perhaps in light of all of the above, men are still fairly consistently under-represented and their needs regularly go unaddressed. It is Men’s Health Week from 10–16 June – perhaps this is an opportunity for family services to review their provision to respond better to the distress, shame and pain men feel, living with a drug or alcohol using loved one.

Joss Smith is director or policy and regional development at Adfam. Funding family support can be found on Adfam’s website,