IN 2018, MALE MENTAL HEALTH IS BIG BUSINESS. ARE THE PIONEERS OF PAID-FOR PSYCHOLOGICAL FITNESS HERE TO MAKE US HAPPIER? OR JUST MORE ANXIOUS?
Male mental health is big business. Are people getting better or just more anxious?
Or was it instead emblematic of the next trend in wellness? That after worrying about our sleep, our exercise, our carbs, our calories, our drinking, our snacking, our meat, our vegetables, the provenance of our meat and vegetables, the number of steps we’ve taken in a day, how much time we spend sitting and/or standing and if our iphones are killing us (probably while we sleep), the next step in mindfulness is our actual minds. And, if so, what does it mean? How do you even “do” mental health anyway?
The issue of mental health has never been more prominent. We’ve seen the headlines that suicide is one of the leading killers of men under 45. We may know too that men report significantly lower life satisfaction than women. That last year in the UK there was a report that described male loneliness as “a silent epidemic”. From adverts on buses urging us to “Ask for help” by texting a number, to celebrities from Princes William and Harry to rapper Stormzy opening up about depression, to the high-profile suicides of chef Anthony Bourdain and the DJ Avicii to plenty of low-profile ones too, fessing up to low moments has shifted up the agenda. The prevailing mood of rap music has moved from braggartry to insecurity: Drake’s lyrics are cries for help, while Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar and J Cole have all talked about depression. Mental illness may be dangerously close to becoming a badge of honour: the website bando.com sold out of AED150 gold nameplate necklaces with the words “Anxiety” and “Depression” in a hip italic font. Their manufacturer says its intention is to “open a dialogue”.
Of course some stigma still remains. Men are famously terrible at talking about anything emotional. But we can confidently say it’s not like it was in our fathers’ days. And definitely not like it was in our fathers’ fathers’ days. Concern over mental wellbeing has produced a slightly more palatable term than #Doyouevenmentalhealthbro?
The new buzzword is “vulnerability” and it is everywhere. In 2010, the US academic Brené Brown gave a Ted talk titled “The Power of Vulnerability” that is by turns moving, convincing and syrupy in the language of Californian retreats and Silicon Valley start-ups. Riffing on hiding shame and pain behind façades, Brown contends: “There is another way: to let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen. To love with our whole hearts, even though there is no guarantee. To practice gratitude and joy… to believe that we’re enough”.
Through its website, podcasts, blogs and Youtube channel, the men’s “media platform” Rebel Wisdom, founded last year by film-maker
David Fuller and meditation teacher Alexander Beiner, invites men to “get vulnerable”, among other things. Its new age-y literature states: “In today’s world, for men to be vulnerable and speak the truth is an act of rebellion. What if you just told the truth?”
In other words, if you have doubts, worries and agonies, talk about them. Drop the default strong-and-silent mode and rebadge your vulnerabilities as strengths: let them be seen.
Sounds fair enough, doesn’t it?
And 36 million views suggests Brené Brown, for one, is onto something. “One of the problems is that in the last 10 years or so, the world hasn’t really been interested in the psychology of gender,” the psychotherapist Nick Duffell told The Guardian in 2018. “What we’ve been interested in are transgender issues and free choice and pronouns and gender as a social construct and abuses of power. But one of the things I’ve been working with is how powerless men often feel in the private sphere. Men are very unskilled when it comes to relationships and dealing with their emotions. We need to train them to be better at vulnerability, better at relating — and when they begin to do that, the power they develop is more authentic.”
Admitting vulnerability, relating, being more authentic… it sounds like a positive step forward when presented by authorities at Ted talks, on philosophy-based Youtube channels and by psychotherapists in newspapers. But what does it actually mean? Where do you start?
IN FACT VULNERABILITY — or #vulnerability — has spawned its own startup culture. Sanctus in London’s Shoreditch has a mission to “change perceptions of mental health”. If you visit one of its Stories Live events, pitched somewhere between an AA meeting, a group therapy workshop and an open mic night, a phrase you will hear a lot is, “Thanks for being vulnerable”.
I attended a session in the summer, in a studio owned by Ustwo, the video