The Big Problem With Mental Health Campaigns for Men

For the last year or so — from “Time to Talk Day” to campaigns fronted by the British Royal Family — we’ve all been barraged with the message that we should be talking about our mental health problems in order to raise awareness, and ideally, seek help.

Much of this narrative is explicitly aimed at men, the burden on whom mental illness is not insignificant. According to the U.K.’s Office for National Statistics, three-quarters of suicides are committed by men. Suicide is also the biggest cause of death of men under 35. Similarly, men are less likely to seek support for their problems from both doctors and family and friends. In that context, it’s no surprise then that a raft of men’s mental health campaigns have emerged in response. In particular, Samaritans, a charity that provides support to those experiencing suicidal thoughts and emotional distress; The Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), a men’s mental health charity; and another mental health charity Mind have all developed specific mental health campaigns aimed at males.

Look closely, however, and many of these campaigns have something in common: They all appeal to normative ideals of what it means to be a “man.” Some campaigns revolve around sports; others around talking to your friends at the bar. Some stress that “real men” — i.e., men with traditionally masculine jobs in the military or construction sports — experience mental health problems, too. For example, one Samaritans ad campaign, “We’re In Your Corner,” centered around a boxer, a rugby player and a soldier; Awareness charity Time to Change went for the “down the pub route,” distributing a range of beer mats encouraging men to reach out to a “mate [who is] acting differently.”

“We’re In Your Corner” Ad Campain

“The message is clear: ‘Real’ men suffer from mental illness, ‘real’ men feel suicidal,” says Jack Urwin, author of Man Up, a book about surviving modern masculinity. “It doesn’t make you any less of a man to admit you’re suicidal and reach out for help.”

But if men are less likely to seek support for their problems because they feel they have to be stoic, could these campaigns be hindering, not helping, them? Are men who don’t fit these normative standards alienated by them? And how do we build mental health campaigns for men that, in the long term, don’t feed into ideas that we know negatively impact their mental health?

Mark Brown, a writer on mental health, describes himself as queer — “not straight, not quite binary either” — meaning “a lot of the assumptions about the locus or crux of the issues at hand don’t make much sense for me.” “I don’t think most of them really chime for trans men, gay men, bi men, men who already can do some of the things required,” he says. “Campaigns rarely ask: What do people expect you to be? What do you force yourself to be? What do those around you force you to be? What parts of yourself did you put to death so you could grow into a man, and how embarrassed are you when you try and use an emotional range you stopped using when you were little?” In general, he feels these “campaigns try to avoid vulnerability as an issue.”

This tension weighs heavily on research done by CALM, which tries to “identify and understand the insight and need” of its audience and build campaigns from there. “It’s definitely a consideration with everything we do,” says CEO Simon Gunning. “Right now, a gendered approach to suicide is needed, and this means reaching men in traditional or normative spaces. But we acknowledge the risk of perpetuating gender divides and stereotypes in taking this approach, and this informs our work at all levels.” Often, Gunning explains, this means appropriating “a more normative space — like football or the pub — but using it to deliver a progressive or challenging message”.

But the problem is that men are “not a homogenous breed who all love football and getting fucked up in the pub,” Urwin stresses. “I’m keen not to shit all over any campaign that’s genuinely trying to help address a huge societal problem. That said, I do think we have to be careful about not alienating men who don’t conform to our ideas of true ‘manhood,’ and there’s absolutely a risk that language centred around ideas of ‘real men’ reinforces the belief there’s a right and a wrong way to be a man, and allows outdated ideals of masculinity to persist.”

So how can we build campaigns that actually work in both the short and long terms? Urwin believes it’s relatively easy. “We don’t have to get rid of the existing campaigns that aim to reach men who conform to these standards — there’s plenty affected by mental illness who do subscribe to these ideals, and they’re a high-risk group for suicide as a result,” he says. “We just need to broaden the campaigns to include different kinds of men, and to steer clear of any suggestion that there’s a correct way to be male.”

Campaigns must also move away from simple awareness-raising, too. We’re all “pretty damn aware” of the issues at this point, Urwin says. Instead, it’s time we address the societal and political causes of the mental health crisis.

For his part, Brown believes we should be “ramping up the war” on other groups, too — “your Paul Elams, your incels, your Jordan Petersons, your Red Pill boosters.” Brown also stresses that men’s organizations — including mental health charities — should be “very clear about their position” on these groups, and clear on helping men understand “how to make themselves emotionally safe without the world reconfiguring into exactly the shape that would suit them.”

“The campaigns are pretty pragmatic,” Brown adds. “They know they can’t build spaces for men to be vulnerable. The weaponization of male vulnerability has risen to a particularly shitty zenith. But we need to begin that process again.”

What everyone agrees on, though, is that men’s mental health campaigns are sorely needed — even if that means feeding into clichés. “It’s funny,” Urwin says. “I have plenty of criticisms about the [‘We’re In Your Corner’] Samaritans campaign. But it launched a good couple of years before I started considering how my own sense of masculinity impacted me, and it’s the first of its kind I remember being impacted by.”

Gunning hopes that CALM’s campaigns “build hope” in this way. “Great campaigns, campaigns that genuinely change the world, have a direct impact — they change people’s behaviors, policy or representation — as well as a legacy impact, where they contribute to longer-term attitudinal change on a deeper, cultural level,” he explains. “It’s crucial our campaigns speak to men on their own turf and in their own terms. But we’re also casting a wider net and engaging the whole of society on an issue that everyone can care about and help to change.”