In 2018, rapper and fashion designer Kanye West started using Twitter to talk about his battle with bipolar disorder and he expressed the importance of having ‘open conversations about mental health.’ In doing so, West joined a list of famous men who have talked about their mental health battles publicly. They include Saturday Night Live’s Pete Davidson, Jim Carey, Prince Harry, Ryan Reynolds, Osher Gunsberg and Michael Phelps.
Conversations about men’s mental health have a relatively new space on social media. While guidelines for safely talking about mental illness online don’t exist yet, according to media reporting site Mindframe, hashtags like #youcantalk and #itaintweaktospeak have been created as spaces for men to feel more comfortable sharing, something that’s desperately needed in Australia, where 72 per cent of men don’t seek help for mental disorders and where there are six male suicides a day.
“Men have always had more stigma admitting to and talking about mental health issues. They’ve traditionally seen it a sign of weakness. That’s starting to change, but we’re still not at the point where most men are comfortable talking about it,” says Professor Ron Rapee, from the Centre of Emotional Health at Macquarie University.
Vikki Ryall, head of Headspace Direct Clinical Services, agrees. “Research has shown us that men are still waiting far too long before they let someone know what’s going on for them. There’s still a lot of masculine expectations that would suggest that they need to be OK and be strong.”
It took Sturt Hinton, CEO for Frequency H20 water and ambassador for mental health research organisation Australian Rotary Health, 12 months to seek help, by which time he had found himself homeless and in a very dark place. “I was at the top of my field job wise, but all of a sudden everything became really hard work. I developed chronic anxiety and started to get suicidal thoughts. I couldn’t see another life for me, I thought that was it.” Sturt ended up quitting his job and got the help he needed by speaking to family members and also psychologists and community groups. “I feel very passionate about talking about my experience now, that’s key to feeling better and staying better.”
So do celebrity spokespeople help other men to speak about their own struggles? It definitely helps in some way, say both Ryall and Professor Rapee, though how exactly it helps is difficult to measure. There’s no known ‘Kylie effect’ for example, of men seeking help because Kanye West did (Kylie Minogue’s public battle with breast cancer in 2005 saw a rise in the number of women asking for breast screenings). “But what we did see during our young men’s campaign Headcoach, were thousands downloads of our ambassador stories, particularly of the E sport star’s story. Men are definitely interested in hearing figureheads talk about their experiences with mental illness – as long as the spokesperson is someone they look up to,” says Ryall.
In 2019, experts say we’re sitting in the middle of a shift of thinking and talking about mental health issues. On the one hand, social media has shone a light on mental illness, but there can be drawbacks to the freestyle way that celebrities talk about it via social media, as they’re not always properly trained. “Having these discussions so publicly means that there can be misinformation and less going to credible sources. All of our ambassadors are trained to make sure that what they say is safe, and also that they are equipped for the aftermath. When an advocate speaks out, all sorts of people start telling them about their experiences, they need to be prepared for that,” says Ryall.
Professor Rapee agrees we’re heading in the right direction with helping men. “It’s something which will gradually change over generations, by allowing young boys to express vulnerabilities and encouraging them to seek help. As a society we need to change the way we talk about men, so that they don’t necessarily need to always ‘suck it up’ and ‘be a man’.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, help is available via Lifeline on 13 11 14