Men’s Lives Are in a State of Flux. This Man Wanted to Open Up the Conversation

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Having seen the conversation around men’s lives unravel over 20 years of working for both men’s and women’s media brands, Mark Sandford felt the subject of men’s mental health wasn’t being covered the way it needed to be. “While the intention was there, it was at best tokenistic and actually quite preachy and narrow-minded.”

He wanted to ditch bro content and clickbait articles like ‘10 signs you have a mental illness’ and replace it with a more thoughtful look at men’s lives today.

They asked how can we normalise mental illness in men? The Book of Man is the result. A platform for supporting all the positive aspects of new, progressive masculinity. We sat down with Mark on the eve of its first anniversary.

AW360: How much more prevalent have mental health issues amongst young men become in the last 10 years or so?

Mark Sandford: Mental health issues have always existed in men, but the main negative feelings have been bottled up and confined as a shameful secret or channelled into negative emotions such as anger or jealousy.

Anxiety and depression can be caused by a number of factors ranging from the effects of stress to trauma and even just down to a chemical imbalance. Stigma still remains – men have been fearful of how employers would view a mental illness, that friends would see it as a weakness in character, that families would feel ashamed.  Schizophrenia, Psychosis, Bi-Polar disorder have been demonised by mainstream channels which mean that these illnesses are hidden if undiagnosed.

At the same time, more people are opening up and acknowledging they need support than ever.  More medication is being administered to help manage anxiety and depression while male eating disorders are up 70% YOY.

AW360: Why do you think that is?

MS: All sexes have mental health, therefore, all sexes can have mental illness – it does not discriminate. However, research shows men are 8 times less likely to talk about their feelings. A 2017 study from Yale found that men were more likely to distract themselves with drink, drugs, bravado, or become introverted as a way of distracting from the issues, this leads to a spiral of hopelessness and the most obvious reason why 75% of ’successful’ suicides are men. We have no wish to generalise, but women tend to have a support network to discuss negative thoughts and also tend to ruminate in order to rationalise their feelings.

In the current climate, the challenges exist as a bi-products of social media, addiction and increased feelings of loneliness. 61% of men in the UK experienced feelings of loneliness last year. Men are struggling to find friends who they can talk to. A massive 20% say they have no one to talk to at all. Social media has, of course, created an outlet for a lot of men so there are positives to it, but there is always a downside of constant voyeurism and the amplification of pressure to be a successful ‘man’.

We, along with a number of really valuable organisations, are trying to bring back the idea of community in the real world.

AW360: ‘Crisis of masculinity’ is a term thrown around a lot – why is that?

MS: Men are re-figuring out their place in the world. I think inspiration is coming from the feminist movement who have made some very positive strides for women in the last ten years alone. Also for many men, there is the realisation that things need to change if they are to stay relevant.

Misogyny, aggression, bravado, are being replaced with compassion, empathy and acceptance  – something all men possess but have traditionally been reluctant to show due to ‘masculine’ conditioning. This shift has caused division, confusion and panic for men, particularly in different cultural and regional groups. It’s important to remember life outside of the major UK cities can be very different and difficult for a lot of men. What many people (particularly men) are failing to realise is that men can still be men, but with respect for other people and a clear understanding of the boundaries that exist.

AW360: How big a part has technology had to play in this? The initial promise of the internet was interconnectedness unlike anything we had ever seen, but it has ended up pulling traditional community ties apart entirely.

MS: Smart Phones, Social Media, On Demand entertainment have all changed the way we behave. The internet has changed the world massively – we can watch what we want when we want, we can interact with whoever we want to, we can find out the answer to anything by talking to an inanimate object.  Social media has been a blessing and a curse for some. Technology inarguably made the world a rich and colourful world full of possibilities

But none of the things I have listed beat the physical contact of speaking and listening. To sit opposite or alongside another human and talk is becoming rare and harder for people to do.

AW360: What steps can be taken to repair this do you think?  

MS: Men and women need to be part of the conversation together. It can’t be a one-sided discussion and anyone who says it can is pushing a different agenda. Safe spaces for men should include women and vice versa. Many men feel disconnected from discussions around equality and it’s our opinion that equality can only come from both sides working out how to achieve it. It has to be inclusive or we suffer a fate worse than draconian times.

So firstly we need to encourage conversation and facilitate environments where this can flourish. We need to use social media and technology responsibly to amplify real-world experiences (it’s not going to go away but it can change). Ultimately, we are saying to men, don’t hide behind a false version of yourself – be honest, be truthful, never feel pressured into doing anything you don’t want to, but accept encouragement and be the best you can be.

AW360: What brands have you brought on board for the various initiatives you are running, and how important do you think them and other brands are in helping with this issue?

MS: In our recent Festival of New Masculinity, we worked with a number of brands such as Harry’s, Freedom Brewery, Wellman and Coty to help facilitate open conversation. Harry’s have done some excellent work with CALM in highlighting the issues facing men, but creating a positive outlook that men can be who they want to be. Freedom are a sustainable brewer targeting a new conscious drinker who cares about the world around them. Wellman promote inner health and encourage men to look after themselves physically in order to promote better mental health and Coty’s new launch Seb Man want men to stop being pigeonholed into a man box and embrace all of the elements that define them. We have also partnered with CALM and other relevant charities who bring a wealth of expertise to the discussion.

79% of men said they did not think advertising was relevant to them in a survey we ran last year, but feedback survey from the 1,000 festival attendees each of our brands received a 90%+ approval rating for their relevance to the discussion and topics surrounding masculinity today. Brands have a massively important role in defining new masculinity and demonstrating the value it can bring.

AW360: What’s next?

MS: A series of workshops and experiences that bring people together in the name of promoting a space for men to talk and be open and to listen and be inspired. We want to drive a revolution in encouraging men to talk openly and feel comfortable doing so with a community of people who believe in a New Masculinity. We will do this through content, events, social, and through the support of like-minded brands who care about men and believe that masculinity can be better, can be a positive and beneficial thing for everyone in society, not just men, but friends, families, colleagues, peers. We have to get this right because by doing so we can change people’s lives for the better and help address some of the big issues facing us today.

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