How citizenship and lived experience are changing the game in supporting men and their mental health

“Bloke” is a term that can mean so much and so little in the space of 5 little letters; the bloke at the bar or snooker hall, the bloke in the kitchen with the family gathering going on, the bloke chatting to his mate, the bloke at the bus stop, the bloke in the barber’s chair, the bloke coming out to his parents, the bloke cradling his child for the first time, the bloke recently arrived in the UK, the bloke laying to rest a loved on, the bloke laughing at jokes or quietly getting on with their workday behind a desk….”just a bloke”….

And these blokes are dying…at an alarming rate compared to the general population — male suicide in the age range 25–49 remains the biggest cause of death for this group of men.

Add in the current societal challenges of inequalities (poverty, gender, race, literacy), a Covid pandemic and an impending recession leading to further precarious employment and job loss combined with a digital world of disruption and social isolation and you can sense the potential risks for increased stress, frustration, helplessness, anxiety and more complex emotional needs linked to traumatic pasts.

But do we help ourselves? I speak as a bloke who lives with chronic anxiety and shame from a traumatic past and I can point to many times and behaviours I have used to blot the world out. Often men internalise and try to manage these feelings on their own as “it’s weak to speak” or “that’s not what men do” and the dam of these unexplored emotions builds and builds, potentially leading to family/relationship challenges, rash decision making, addiction, anger and violence, desperation…..basically, breakdown.

The power of lived experience in a “digital democracy”

Recognising men are as varied and individual as their life experiences is powerful to break out of the traditional methods of supporting men (often men do not exhibit help seeking behaviours until a crisis point, or if “picking up the pieces” after an event — source Samaritans).

Scroll through the internet and you will see pages and pages of “recovery stories” online — stories of how normal people have fallen in many different areas of life and how they have come out through the dark times with a combination of personal discovery, forgiveness, positivity, peer support and professional help. The new digital era of social media is combining with people’s willingness to share accessible and relevant stories aligned to their experiences — great examples of this are @gamblingguard who posts humorous and accessible content on TikTok, Twitter and Instagram aimed to reach out to 18–25 year old men at risk of disordered gambling or addiction harnessing his own story, and “Enlighten the Shadows” — a YouTube discussion platform where men are interviewed to share their life stories with refreshing honesty and hope.

And people are using their lived experience to convene physically too. Walking and Talking groups have emerged out of lockdown such as the lad’s group TalkHUB in Warrington and Liverpool, Mind Over Mountains offer coaching and mindfulness alongside hiking trips and “Talk About it Mate” in Manchester — an already established peer support network which offers online peer support, book clubs and discussion groups as well as walking groups.

Connecting has never been easier — groups focussed on specific interests and sharing lived experience are especially interesting as they are accessible, informative and welcoming — their story is your story.

Citizenship for change — think and engage in communities

Encouraging men to seek help is not impossible and requires energy and focus to achieve. MoveMENt is a male suicide prevention social movement in Warrington which harnesses collaboration and the authenticity of the individual organisations to create a collaborative network so men seeking help can be supported to find the right group or activities for them. Doing this safely is a chief concern to ensure that people are not “dropped” if the right support is not found the first time of engagement. This approach is couched in the principles of Asset Based Community Development and Making Every Contact Count — that power for change can be actioned from within a neighbourhood, community or interest group. Arguably traditional models of help often come from local bureaucratic systems or national charity organisations with rigid scopes — perhaps it is time for funders and charities to loosen their grip and open up a conversation which shifts the power to our communities — as Cormac Russell, a leading proponent on ABCD notes; “advocating for health, safety, learning, prosperity or justice while behaving as though they have nothing to do with our places or cultures is like trying to grow a flower in a pot when we have an entire meadow at our disposal”

And how do we do that — two key areas for consideration are;

Designing services with men in mind;

The Samaritans recent report on “Engaging Men Earlier” offers 5 principles when considering male groups;

· Use activities to facilitate conversation

· Be welcoming and accessible by having a sense of irreverence and starting with low commitment and increase as confidence grows

· Communicate clearly

· Foster meaningful relationships over time

· Develop a sense of achievement

Factoring these compass points when considering engagement with men will go a long way to knocking down the barriers.

In-reach into communities;

Nikhwat Marawat the founder of The Delicate Mind, a national mental health CiC focussed on the interface between faith, identity and masculinity in racialized communities sets out the simple message on in-reaching and supporting communities; “communities are not “hard to reach” — go to the communities you wish to work alongside and listen, authentically”….broadly;

· Finding the groups

· Building relationships with them

· Listening to them

· Learning from them

· Supporting them in their visions

By doing this you truly amplify and multiply the capacities of individuals to unlock creativity, inventiveness and authentic approaches to important issues.

Jim is part of The Mental Forge — a collective of men’s mental health advocates and organisations committed to working collaboratively and supporting each other in their areas of interest. You can see more about the work of these organisations via;

· Twitter — @forged_in_life

· Video of a recent national event — Developing Collaborative Approaches to Men’s Mental Health

· Written report — “Somebody, Nobody, Everybody”

Making sense of mental health in blokes