Is the tide turning on men's mental health?

October 2023

Men’s mental health has become part of a growing public conversation around well-being, with many male celebrities opening up about their own struggles. But have attitudes really changed?

Is men's mental health moving into the mainstream? This summer, Simon Cowell spoke about having therapy in a new podcast called Men in Mind – a collaboration between Mind and the Mirror newspaper. One of The X Factor’s biggest stars, Olly Murs, praised his former judge and mentor for his openness after revealing that he too had sought help from a specialist. Both men join a roll call of public figures, from Prince Harry to Tyson Fury, who have spoken out in recent years about their struggles with mental health.

The backdrop to these celebrity revelations is a long-term trend of men suffering from poor mental health, sometimes with tragic consequences. Although suicide rates in England and Wales have decreased significantly since the 1980s, the gap between the genders has widened. In 2021, the Office for National Statistics found that three times more men than women take their own life. In addition, men are more likely to go missing, sleep rough, become dependent on alcohol and use drugs frequently.

“I think men can turn a lot of issues inwards. These things pile up and it gets too much and then it all explodes... I think a lot of guys wait until crisis time. I've had people who have been rescued from Beachy Head. That's how bad men sometimes get before they'll ask for help. And that needs to change.”

Clem Guest, peer mental health worker, Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust

Of course, statistics can only tell us about cases that have been reported. Since men are also less likely to seek help, these trends may be more pronounced than we realise. Clem Guest, a peer support worker for the Sussex Partnership Foundation NHS Trust, confirms that men can feel uncomfortable seeking and receiving support.

“Some men seem reluctant in terms of expressing their feelings and getting down onto an emotional level,” says Clem. “Others feel a little bit like ‘what am I doing here?’ I think a lot of that comes down to the classic stereotypes that men should keep a stiff upper lip and sort things out for themselves. I mean, that's how I was brought up, and it's a really unhealthy way of thinking and living.

“I think guys can turn a lot of issues inwards. These things pile up and it gets too much and then it all explodes. Men are less likely to go to the doctor when they start to experience things. I think a lot of guys wait until crisis time. I've had people who have had to be rescued from Beachy Head. That's how bad guys sometimes get before they'll ask for help. And that needs to change.”

More men working in mental health

Clem’s lived experience has been pivotal in making a connection with his clients. He believes more men would seek help if there were more male staff working in mental health services.

“When I started four years ago there was only one male member of staff. There are four of us now and I think it has improved access for men.

"When men know there are men working within an organisation I think they feel a lot more comfortable coming forward. When I explain my role and my lived experience, the reaction I hear more often than not is ‘oh, you get it, you understand!’ And that’s such a powerful thing, because making that connection with another guy means they can relax and start opening up. Then we can have a nice open, non-judgmental conversation. And that's a help. It’s a real help.”

The value of informal support networks

But what about men who are reluctant, for whatever reason, to seek help in the first place? One solution, pioneered by a Worthing group, is to offer informal support through activities and events.

Dad La Soul is a support network which hosts regular events for dads and their children. Dan Flanagan, who runs the group, has seen how an informal community based around a pastime or activity can have a real impact on men’s mental health.

“An activity is really helpful in getting people through the door,” says Dan. “Men don't often seek help until point of crisis. So what we do is operate two or three steps before that. We put on playdates and meet-ups for dads. There's DJ workshops, film workshops, stand-up comedy and all this different stuff. They’ll come along and that's when the group therapy actually starts. They'll start opening up in the conversations rather than going to a room to sit around in a circle. We operate a Trojan horse approach. Because if I said: ‘Hello, middle-aged men, come over here and talk about your feelings…’ they're gonna go: ‘No, thank you very much!’”

Dan started the group in 2016 to create a space for men to share their experiences and to reframe the narrative around fatherhood. Dad La Soul also provides an opportunity to make friends which, given the rise of loneliness and isolation in the UK, may be just as important. And it seems to be working.

“There's been a huge increase in our numbers,” says Dan. “There are also more people willing to travel because services don’t exist where they live. We had one guy that was coming down from mid-Wales because his daughter lived locally and he had no other support network. We’ve got dads that have been generationally unemployed making friends with dads with seven-figure salaries. We are very unique in the way that we can bring men together. Our youngest member is 21 and our eldest is 75.”

Having a reference point

Having met and worked with hundreds of dads over the last seven years, Dan believes there has been a definite change in the way men’s mental health is viewed: “I think dads are more open to recognising the signs and being able to open up. The whole topic of men's mental health is on the crest of a wave with a Zeitgeist moment with people like Tyson Fury and Alastair Campbell and all of these other rich and successful dads opening up about their struggles.

“I think that's made a huge impact because you need reference points. Tyson Fury is the heavyweight champion of the world and he has suicide ideation. The toughest kid on the block had a breakdown. In normal ‘common sense’ that doesn't happen. You know, depression and mental illness is supposed to be for the weak and for the vulnerable. I think that tide has turned.”

Clem Guest agrees that the stigma is changing, albeit slowly: “I’ve been seeing a lot more men come through the system, which is great. I always congratulate them and thank them for coming forward. We’re also helping men to do their own peer support work, you know, to talk with their mates and all the rest of it. It's like a domino effect."