Are We Ready To Listen?

I started with Movember nearly 9 years ago and while we were substantial funders of mental health initiatives, it was extremely hard to get a conversation going about these investments. Kiwis were happy to support through growing Mo’s, making donations and, in some cases, acknowledged they were grateful we were supporting such a significant issue, but that acknowledgement was often saved and shared in private one-on-one conversations.

Words by Rob Dunne, Movember Foundation NZ Country Manager

It makes me look back on the early participants in Movember who openly acknowledged that they were growing and donating to Movember because, as a group, we funded mental health and suicide prevention programmes. I now realise that they were brave, not because they supported Movember, but because they were prepared to have a conversation about mental health in their communities and amongst their peers, which are often the toughest places to have them, especially without truly knowing how that would be received.

One of the first Mo Bros I got to know well was Richard Brown, who lost his twin brother to suicide. In 2008, Southland-born Clint Brown was 26 and experiencing a deep depression, although his family and friends thought he was on the mend. His counsellor asked the young man to write a letter to help him express himself, but instead he penned a suicide note.

The note said, “we shouldn’t have a funeral because no one would come,” his twin brother, Richard, recalls. “We had the biggest funeral in Invercargill and there were people out the door.” This story mirrors that of so many. A capable young Kiwi man with a supportive community around him that struggled to identify the significance of the issue and how to get the help required.

Today the challenges are different. Due to the bravery and strength of so many in previous years, we are now at a stage where there is national acknowledgment of the issue, regular coverage of the concerning statistics surrounding mental health and a government that has pledged to make improving those statistics a priority, particularly with young New Zealanders.

Men are now encouraged to talk more, open up and show vulnerability. But all this rhetoric encouraging conversation has eclipsed a crucial question: are we ready to listen?

One of my colleagues in Mo HQ Melbourne is Dr. Zac Seidler, Director of Health Professional Training at Movember. He notes how men’s emotions have been repressed for generations to the detriment of their health and the wellbeing of those around them. Quite rightly Dr. Zac Seidler says, “Mental health advocates the world over have called for an overhaul of men’s socially prescribed behaviours and the phrase ‘boys will be boys’ has gained toxic infamy. In response, many men are attempting to navigate the growing pains of this long overdue shift in today’s gender politics.

“No longer is masculinity defined by a silent stoicism and breadwinner status solely sufficient. Emotional awareness and an openness to vulnerability have now been added to the masculine melting pot. To ‘man up’ has taken on a whole new complex meaning, and it’s about time. Yet, it seems the pace at which we are requesting men adapt is faster than we as a society can muster up the resources to respond to the magnitude of need.”

Men are beginning to reach out, but I am regularly told instances where they have tried and it didn’t work and, in the worst cases, it made them feel embarrassed and weak that they did. In these cases, they are effectively doing what society is asking of them, showing real strength in their vulnerability then being met by friends, family and colleagues that absolutely want to help but feel reluctant to offer advice on issues that they don’t have a wealth of experience with.

It has always been substantially easier for me to stand in front of large groups of people and speak about Movember, our history, our investments and the action we want our community to take, than it is to speak to my best friends on issues of significance, like mental health.

Letting my mates know that no matter the issue they might be experiencing that I would be there for them is a tough conversation to have. These are men, my good mates, with whom I studied, played sport and socialised with for years, but despite everything I’ve been exposed to, I still subconsciously want to give the impression that I am capable, successful and in control of my environment, whether it be work or personal.

Statistics suggest that at any given time, 1 in 5 men are suffering from some form of mental health issue. While this number is concerning, it also shows that 4 in 5 are not, which brings us back to the question from my colleague Dr Zac Seidler “Are we ready to listen?”

I do believe that in NZ, that answer is increasingly yes. Nearly every day I see or hear of people acting and behaving in a way that gives me real hope about the journey we’re on, a journey to reduce the incidence of mental health issues. All over New Zealand, there are people being brave, hosting events, telling their stories and openly getting backing from communities that in the past were reluctant to offer support. In these communities, it’s not due to a lack of desire but because they didn’t know how or even if they could.

It is a popular stereotype to say men bottle up their feelings, but research increasingly says that is not true. More and more men are opening up about the challenges in their lives and if those around them are prepared to listen, positive change will continue to occur.

Movember and other organisations have a significant role to play in increasing mental health education and greater literacy will help us better support our mates, but we as men, mates, fathers and sons also have a role to play. We might not totally understand the issues, we most probably won’t have all the answers, but if our starting point is that we understand friends and family from all types of situations and backgrounds struggle and we are prepared to listen and show empathy, then we are going in the right direction.