What does it mean to be a man? What pressures are men under today? And what services are available to those struggling? These are just a few of the questions that were covered at the ‘No Man is an Island’ panel discussion at the Mental Wealth Festival 2019.
The panellists offering up their insights into modern day manhood included:
- Mark Malcomson (Chairman) Principal and CEO of City Lit
- Mark Rice-Oxley, Guardian Journalist and Author of Underneath the Lemon Tree
- Matt Johnson, Host of The Naked Professors podcast and MIND ambassador
- Ian Tucknott, Head of City Lit’s School of Humanities
- Tommy Danquah, Co-host of Man Up UK podcast
- Oliver Chantler, Public Affairs and Campaign Manager at Samaritans
The thought provoking session hosted by the National Gallery raised many interesting issues around male mental health and – although we here at Hook Research, like the panel, could go on endlessly about this subject – we have done our very best to whittle this rich discussion down to three major takeaways.
Role models are great, peer support groups are better, health services are essential
Mark Malcomson kicked off the session by reflecting on the growth of awareness around mental health since the inception of the Mental Wealth Festival five years ago.
Public figures championing the work and conversations around mental health have gone from a few key voices, such as Alastair Campbell and Ruby Wax, to members of the Royal Family and global pop stars like Prince Harry and Ed Sheeran.
Thousands of influential people and celebrities have joined the quest to spread awareness – but is this the most effective or, more importantly, the safest strategy when approaching the subject of mental health?
Representations of, as well as conversation around, mental health within the media are of great importance. There is no doubt that many are comforted and inspired by their favourite actors, musicians, authors and sport personalities giving candid accounts of their experiences. But the worry for our panellists was whether these efforts are translating into the day to day lives of the public.
“Role models are great but that’s what they are: they are role models. Those practices need to be put in place in order to change a life.” – Ian Tucknott
The numbers, Oliver Chantler informed us, indicate that they are not. Suicide is currently the biggest killer of men under forty-five in the UK and Samaritans, a charity dedicated to reducing feelings of isolation and disconnection that can lead to suicide, reply to over 5 million calls for help a year.
Chantler also highlighted that many of the men that commit suicide have no record of mental illness, and although a fraction may be unreported conditions, research indicates that most are a result of feelings of stress and isolation that have persisted over long periods of time with no intervention.
“We see so much about men opening up, this is essential, but we need to ensure the services can support and respond appropriately. The worst thing that can happen is someone opens up, very bravely, and is rejected.” – Oliver Chantler
This, our panellists agreed, is why efforts should be placed at a local level. They expressed it was important to create tangible communities focused on mental wellbeing – whether that is introducing a peer support group night at the local pub or getting the captain of the local football club to introduce some repackaged ‘mindfulness’ techniques into the training schedule – that give individuals the tools and an opportunity to share their feelings before they become unmanageable.
Planting these initiatives in rural areas was thought of as an effective first step in addressing the regional disparity of health services across the UK. Such simple measures could reach those at highest risk, males between forty and fifty, that might not be aware of the digital resources that those younger than them are accessing for support.
“When you are outside of any city or metropolis, the situation is dire. [Men] either don’t feel mental health is relevant or if they do have the bottle to call on service they aren’t there…that’s why podcasts and books are great – people can feel involved anonymously.” – Matt Johnson
‘Failure’ needs to be reframed
The panel felt that above all else, the concept of failure and the general attitude toward failing needs to change in order for the male population’s mental health to improve. After all, everyone will inevitably spend far more time failing at things than succeeding over their lifetime. When thought of in such simple terms the idea of striving to live a life absent of failure is almost laughable and it is embracing this attitude, our panellists surmised, that will ultimately save lives.
“Why don’t we consider failure as an opportunity to learn? It can be a catapult into something greater.” – Mark Malcomson
This may sound extreme, but as the Samaritans’ Oliver Chantler explained, it is the obsession with social perfectionism and shame attached to failure that leads many people to take their own lives. Although this issue does not only effect men, shockingly they are three times more likely to take their own lives than women and this figure rises to ten times more likely if the man is from a low-income household. The focus, Chantler expressed, should be on targeting men that hold this destructive perception and ensuring the appropriate services are available to them when and if they need them.
“This isn’t rocket science, we know what to do. We need to see services aimed at men that change their perceptions of failure from a negative thing to a positive thing.” – Oliver Chantler
Our panel also felt that the onus should be on parents to draw their children’s attentions to role models in the local community. This was less about building community spirit and more about introducing attainable versions of success – people that make mistakes and push themselves out their comfort zones – to a demographic that have grown up looking at their peers through the curated lens of social media.
“All you need to do to understand the aggression, the emphasis on achievement that is put on young boys today is stand on the side-lines at a seven year olds football match…It’s all about perfectionism, there is so much pressure on people these days and everyone takes themselves so seriously. We need to encourage each other, especially encourage our children, to do things they’re bad at, to laugh at each other.” – Mark Rice-Oxley
However, there needs to be a fundamental shift in the way we view failure as a society for young people to feel confident enough to fail openly.“Americans tend to view failure as a badge of honour, things you’ve survived. Brits view failure as failure, it is something to be ashamed of.”– Mark Malcomson The panel proposed a shift toward a ‘stereotypically American’ relationship with failure; rather than feeling ashamed of our failures and using them to confirm our worst fears, we should view them as something to be proud of.
There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to male mental health
As the panellists pointed out, it may seem obvious but recognising the differences between people and taking the time to listen to how they’d like to be supported can be half the battle.
Research has shown that certain groups of men have expressed a preference toward engaging in hands-on activities with a team in the hopes that deeper conversation will follow instead of explicitly stating that they’d like support. Also many like to passively listen to others work through topics whilst others seek out the friend they perceive to be least judgemental in order to unload.
“We need to think of different ways of inspiring conversation between men, rather than squeezing them into a model of female friendship which might not work.” – Matt Johnson
Regardless of the way the problem is communicated, learning to listen before reacting, Ian Tuchnott explained, is one of the most valuable service you can offer someone trying to express their state of mind. By doing so you validate the individual’s feelings and this, Tommy Danquah felt, should take place when interacting with children as well as adults.
“The input we have as adults is being able to say to children ‘it’s okay to feel the way you’re feeling’. Don’t shame them, let them cry and be overwhelmed, then they’ll move on – that’s growth.” – Tommy Danquah
There are many times when children – like adults – need to be picked up, dusted off and sent back to play. They will manage (the damage is superficial) but on other occasions they need to be allowed to go through the motions and fully experience their feelings. Only through allowing them to do this will we have a generation of adults that are able to manage their emotions and the ‘stiff upper lip that has haunted generations’ can start to be thought of as a thing of the past…
Enjoyed this blog? You might want to check out our blog on fighting the stigma around BAME Mental Health (Mental Wealth Festival 2019) , our research into the The Changing Face of Masculinity or sign up for our media newsletter and get thoughts like these delivered straight to your inbox each month!