What makes a man? Exploring men and mental health in society

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Being a Man festival (BAM) at the Southbank Centre in London is now in its fourth year. Each year it explores themes around men and masculinity through engaging panel discussions, performances, innovative workshops and informative stalls. This year BAM festival’s topic was ‘what makes a man?’

I was lucky enough to attend two inspiring, frank and honest talks ‘Emotional rescue: Men, Suicide and Mental Health’ and ‘More Than Talking’ representing the Mental Health Foundation in our commitment to good mental health for all men.

I truly felt men’s wellbeing was at the heart of this packed three day event. Throughout both of the talks the panellists checked in on the audience’s level of comfort, by signposting the locations of the Samaritans stall and the quiet space that had been allocated upstairs in case discussion content became triggering. There was also mental health first aid training workshops on throughout the weekend. 

Being A Man Festival

Emotional rescue: men, suicide and mental health

Is talking about feelings still a taboo for men? A discussion featuring: Rotimi Akinsete, Jack Rooke, Dr. Jay Watts, Kenny Mammarella-D’Cruz and our President Dinesh Bhugra

This was a large topic for a 60-minute discussion, and one in which the panellists delivered engaging, fast-paced and in-depth content. The key messages expressed throughout the talk looked into work pressures, unequal access to services, suicide rates, and the importance of talking.

Work and identity

The panellists raised the problematic nature of work traditionally being woven into the male identity in western society.

The concept that a man should work, gain status and earn can link male identity to something external rather than internal. The panellists mentioned that this archaic narrative can cause a higher risk of suicide in men than women if they become unemployed. This is due to the feelings that emerge from a lack of purpose, lowered self-worth and loss of identity.  

Men and accessing services

Comedian Jack Rooke gave an honest account about his best friend Ollie, who took his own life in 2015. Jack described the postcode lottery that happens when accessing services – something that fatally let down Ollie after he left London.

Director of Wellbeing at Surrey University, Rotimi added that accessing services is currently gendered, with more women currently using services than men. He also noted that it is important to think about intersectionality when discussing this; as certain groups are less likely to feel support services are welcome to them due to previous discrimination, such as gay, bi-sexual or transgender men.

Rotimi founded the project Black Men on the Couch and through it tries to open the discussion around what issues might arise and what services are available - currently there is a low level of access to services from black men.

Men and suicide

Dinesh, President of the Mental Health Foundation, opened this topic by stating that suicide is universal. Apart from four or five countries that are an exception, men have a higher rate of suicide than women, and in Poland the rate of suicide in men has increased 50% since 2013. Dinesh says that the reasons are multi layered and complex and can’t be overgeneralised, but the socialisation process has a huge part to answer for, alongside cultural inaccessibility.

Safe space to express

The panellists all agreed that we need to see a cultural shift towards helping men to break through some of the ‘toxic masculinity’ they’ve learnt and talk freely about their feelings, emotions and mental health.

‘The Man Whisperer’ and creator of men’s groups Kenny believes passionately in the importance of this. Kenny came back from having been abroad for 5 years and found that he couldn’t have an honest or real conversation with his male friends, it was all cloaked in work, status, power and success. He wanted to create a shift in this and invited his friends to his house to talk freely, to let go of who they ‘should’ be and be who they ‘want’ to be. The men’s groups he runs today evolved from there.

More than talking

A discussion featuring Jack Rooke, Richard Gadd, Byron Vincent, Cecilia Knapp

This was a powerfully moving panel discussion interspersed with light comedic moments. The aim was to ‘discuss what solutions exist outside of talking and the NHS to improve mental wellbeing and tackle toxic masculinity’. All of the panellists are creative in some form and each have their own lived experience of mental ill health. The combination of this has you connecting to them and the people in their lives whilst learning, empathising and wanting to join the movement of change and collective voice. This is expressed through either comedy, impassioned anger, or emotive storytelling.

Jack’s story

I was particularly struck by comedian and campaigner Jack’s story. He opened the talk with a piece he had written about his personal experiences and his best friend Ollie. He shared the struggles he had experienced with his mental health at university. He was finding it difficult to come to terms with the grief of his dad’s death, his diet issues and his sexuality. This took him to the student counselling service, here he learnt that finding the right therapist is important and that there is no talking therapy / therapist that fits all.

He didn’t feel his therapist understood him so left the service and found himself pulled to a wonderfully eccentric rocker called Susanne who worked at student services. He felt safe with her, she opened up about her life experiences and emotional breakdown and he felt able to share in return. She introduced him to the epidemic of men and suicide and made him aware of CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably), for whom he is now an ambassador.

He met his friend Ollie through the University radio show they were on. Jack said that Ollie and his varying mental ill health could make him feel a range of emotions from angry to understood and accepted. Through their friendship they spoke about mental health openly and began to challenge the restrictions of their anxieties together.

Ollie graduated before Jack and moved to London, he struggled with the pace and pressures and moved back home. Ollie couldn’t access the same services as in London, amended medications and struggled with his mental health and took his own life. Jack went on to create the show Happy Hour at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival which spoke about Ollie, suicide and issues with current mental health care statistics and media representation.

Jack’s experience with Ollie made him think about men and mental health differently. This is what caused him to approach the idea that it is more than talking as the two of them had an incredibly honest friendship. What he witnessed with Ollie were issues arising from lack of equal services and access to these services across the country alongside other different layers.

What needs to change?

The panellists gave their views on what can be done to improve mental health in men.

  • Functional services - Jack read out the stark statistics about mental health trusts and why they need to change - 62% needed improvement, 40% had cuts the year before, and 57% planned to cut spends on mental health. Byron expressed a need for functional services within the NHS.
  • Waiting lists - Whilst waiting for services 1/6 have attempted to take their own life. Waiting lists for mental health services such as talking therapies need to shorten.
  • Honest accounts - Cecilia noted that now mental health is in the collective consciousness it has become a ‘sexy zeitgeist’ with depression pieces avoiding talking about how hard the messy side of mental health can be. She says we need more frank conversations happening around mental health.
  • Social responsibility - It is important individually to let everyone know that it’s okay to talk and that there are services available.
  • Personal responsibility - It is important to look after your own mental health as well as your physical health. Know your limits and learn to put yourself first when you need to. Do the things that are great for your wellbeing.
  • Storytelling - Write and share a story of personal lived experience with mental health to create empathy and change. 
  • Systematic empathy - Push for a shift towards a more empathetic approach amongst all support services.