Why language and environment are crucial to men's mental health Oliver , Junior copywriter

Language has the power to create empathy and connection, but used incorrectly, it can also raise barriers. In the case of mental health, our language is far from universally accessible.

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From one-to-one to collective conversation   

Following his mother’s death, Prince William has been open and honest about his own struggles. His goal is to bridge the gap between public and private. Take the recent BBC documentary where he reached out to football icons. Here he engaged the likes of Peter Crouch, Jermaine Jenas and Gareth Southgate to share their own experiences.

Other initiatives tackle the problem within communities. Luke Ambler, a 28-year-old former rugby league pro whose brother-in-law took his own life, founded Andy’s Man Club, whose goal is to half the male suicide rate in this country. Started in 2016 in Halifax, it’s now in 18 locations across the country and 1,200 men meet every Monday at Andy’s Man Club. There’s no talk of religion or medication, no mental health professionals or hierarchy. Each meeting begins with five questions: “How’s your week been?”, “Name one positive thing that has happened to you this week?”, “Anything to get off your chest?”, “What’s your goal between now and next week?” and “Tell us about someone you appreciate in your life and why?”. Combine this with their straightforward tagline, “It’s okay to talk”, and we might be onto something here.

Andy’s Man Club uses conversational language for, ‘ordinary blokes’ who are ‘speaking normally’. Journalist Sam Delaney argues that language around mental health has become ‘overridingly feminised’ and ‘middle-class’ in tone. He makes the point that it ostracises those men who like beer, banter and football – for whom the lexicon of mental health isn’t intrinsic, and the stigma is still going strong.

Everyday subjects such as bills, loneliness and drinking aren’t being covered in the wider conversations around mental health. If men don’t have the prescribed mental health language, could it be that even if they are talking, we’re simply not hearing them? The Samaritans ‘We listen’ campaign tackles this perfectly.

Natasha Devon, a writer, speaker and campaigner, explains that, “Telling boys and men to catch up – to learn the vocabulary of mental health, to shed their macho notions of strength and drop their stigmatised perceptions of mental illness – is just victim blaming”. Devon’s not wrong; the vocabulary of mental health absolutely needs to be more open. And this accessibility needs to happen within their preexisting spaces of ‘strength’ and ‘masculinity’.

To remove the stigma and normalize the subject we need to start with everyday language. And re-define stoicism as a healthier, more open, confident and comfortable characteristic, in turn lowering the risk of suicide.

And let’s think about the language connected to the stoic male. There are words I certainly remember growing up. The first being, ‘gay’, a mostly negative connotation to describe an action, event or object, ‘that t-shirt’s really gay’. This puts an obsessive focus on what boys aren’t traditionally supposed to be, i.e. girls or feminine. And this association places an early stigma on close male friendships.

Another phrase is ‘to man up’. Used by both sexes as a way of telling someone to shrug off any emotion that might interfere with their actions or intentions. Or ‘no homo’ – when two men share an emotionally close moment within in a group of people, it’s used to both safeguard and reinforce their heterosexuality.

Though seemingly inconsequential, when you put a spotlight on the vocabulary directed at men from an early age, it’s not hard to see how we’ve got here. And just as language may have shackled us to certain societal norms, we can also use it to set us free. Just like the outdated stereotypes placed on women, brands are now changing the messages and language they use with men. Take subscription shaving company, Harry’s ‘A Man Like You’, Topman’s collaboration with CALM (Campaign Against Miserable Living) ‘Don’t bottle it up’, and the LAD Bible’s ‘UOKM8?’. Male brands present the perfect combination of language and environment to break down mental health stigma on a universal level.

So, while there’s still much to do, it’s clear we’re moving in the right direction. One conversation at a time.

Rufus Leonard

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