In late March, East London wellbeing charity Shoreditch Trust held a “Men and Mental Health Unconference” at the local Healthy Living Centre. The stated aim of the free event was to encourage ordinary local people to “help lead the conversation around men’s mental health” in the area. I know what you’re thinking: that word “Unconference” sounds like something out of The Office or W1A. But in practice, it just meant that everyone’s voice was treated equally and there were no stuffy formal speakers or cheesy pre-ordained targets.
Instead, the Unconference was a relaxed and productive affair, a few hours in which a diverse group of local men – and a smaller number of women – were all able to have their say. No one claimed to have any quick-fix solutions to the problems surrounding men’s mental health, especially in an era of psychologically damaging Tory austerity, but here are eight suggestions that gained traction on the day.
MEN REALLY NEED MORE SAFE SPACES WHERE THEY CAN TALK ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH
I was surprised by how freely men at the Unconference spoke about the mental health issues that they and their friends had faced – and so were the organisers. "What we found on the day was that people had so much to say and just needed a space to express themselves,” Marion Brossard of The Social Innovation Partnership (which supports Shoreditch Trust) told me afterwards. “It was almost more of a challenge making sure everyone had their turn to talk, because I think many of these people hadn't necessarily been given this kind of space before. We say too often that 'men don't talk about these things', but maybe it's more that they aren’t given the opportunities to talk about them?”
BUT MEN’S MENTAL HEALTH SERVICES SHOULDN’T BE RESTRICTED TO TRADITIONAL SPACES
Thanks to the National Pharmacy Association, we know that men are less likely to visit GPs and pharmacies than women. We also know they’re less likely to access mental health services, even though 78 percent of people who committed suicide in 2013 were male. So, it was suggested at the Unconference that mental health services could be introduced to spaces where men generally feel more comfortable. The Lions Barber Collective is already pioneering the idea of talking about mental health and suicide prevention at barbers’ shops. Could similar initiatives be trialled at sports venues, community gyms and even pubs?
‘MEN-ONLY’ SPACES COULD BE BENEFICIAL TO MEN’S MENTAL HEALTH
Hang on, doesn’t the phrase “men-only space” conjure up images of some throwback “gentlemen’s club” or a posh golf course refusing to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century? "I found this interesting when it came up at the event," Marion Brossard tells me. "I can imagine how it might get twisted – but with the right intention, I don't see how the idea of a men-only mental health group could be a problem. At the end of the day, it's about creating a space for people to speak about a really sensitive topic that they might not feel comfortable sharing with people outside that circle – at least not to begin with. It's not anything to do with creating an exclusive club in the sense of superiority; it's more of a space to allow for vulnerability through being with people who you perceive as similar to you."
ENTERING THE MENTAL HEALTH SYSTEM SHOULD BE MADE LESS INTIMIDATING FOR MEN
Some men at the Unconference said they expected to feel “judged” or “stigmatised” by mental healthcare professionals; others admitted they felt “intimidated” by the idea of entering the mental healthcare system. One solution proposed on the day was a kind of buddy system, whereby men who enter the system would be paired with someone who’s already navigated its ups and downs. The buddy, who’d probably be a volunteer, would be well-placed to answer any questions about the process and ease any nerves.
MEN SHOULD BE ENCOURAGED TO TALK ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH FROM A VERY YOUNG AGE
PE, or Physical Education, is part of the National Curriculum because the government believes that every child should be encouraged to look after their physical wellbeing. Now that we’re finally waking up to the UK's mental health crisis, isn't it time for PE to expand into PMHE, or Physical and Mental Health Education? It was pointed out that teachers should never be expected to become de facto mental health professionals, but teaching kids about the importance of their emotional and mental wellbeing from a young age was definitely a popular suggestion at the Unconference.
MEDIA PORTRAYALS OF MENTAL HEALTH NEED TO CHANGE
It was felt that books, films and TV shows have traditionally perpetuated sexist and reductive views of these issues; too often, women experiencing mental health issues are portrayed as “shrieking and hysterical”, while men are depicted as “calculating psychopaths”.
WE AS A SOCIETY NEED TO CHANGE THE TERMINOLOGY WE USE TO TALK ABOUT MEN’S MENTAL HEALTH
“Be strong” and “don’t cry” are never the right things to say to a man experiencing mental or emotional turmoil. Equally, “man up” is a great name for an East London drag king contest, but has no place in the conversation around men’s mental health.
AND FINALLY, MEN SHOULD BE MORE INVOLVED IN DESIGNING THE MENTAL HEALTH SERVICES AVAILABLE TO THEM
“I think this is essential – and not only for men's mental health," Marion Brossard says. “Traditionally, we've had a group of polished professionals getting together and saying, 'Well, we think these are the challenges in getting people to access mental health services, so let's come up with a great idea, launch it and see if it pleases people.' But really this is a question of lived and learned experience and how those two can come together. We need people who have first-hand experience of the problems we're trying to solve involved in designing and delivering the programmes we roll out, because obviously they know all about them from actually living them."