'How are you? How are you really?' - that's the double-edged question being asked to every man in Swindon as a new campaign looking to encourage men to speak up about their mental health launched today.
A culture of toxic masculinity is being challenged with the launch of a new mental health campaign looking to support men across Swindon.
As part of the week-long campaign 'Men's Mental Health Swindon' organisations across the town are pulling together to offer workshops, poetry and spoken word events, yoga classes and music gigs to encourage men in Swindon to talk about their mental health.
Although discussions around mental health are becoming less taboo, national and local figures show that one in four men will experience depression during their lifetime and that more than 70% of people who commit suicide are men. In response to these concerning figures Swindon Borough Council have backed a new campaign directed at "everyday men" in Swindon.
Charlie Paradise, Public Mental Health Coordinator at Swindon Borough Council, is leading the campaign with co-founder Alex Pollock - the director of Swindon-based company SocMedSup. Charlie said: "Nationally and locally we unfortunately know that 75% of people who take their own lives are men.
"What we hear time and time again is families saying things like ‘I had absolutely no idea they were struggling – they didn’t tell me.' And, that’s probably the most heart-breaking thing about it.
"We also know, from a public health perspective, that one in four men suffer with depression at some point in their lives and yet we aren’t getting many that are accessing services – and we’re certainly not getting many who are openly talking about it."
Swindon offers a range of mental health services including Swindon & Gloucester Mind, Swindon and District Samaritans, TWIGS, IPSUM and Swindon Lift but stigmas around admitting mental health problems often prevent men from seeking help. To tackle such stigmas Men's Mental Health Swindon have enlisted volunteers to represent men from Swindon to show solidarity between them which the initiative hopes will encourage more men to speak up.
Local poet Scott Cowley, 47, - known in creative circles as 'Rusty Goat' - is backing the campaign for this exact reason. This week Scott will be utilising his poetry and spoken word night 'Rusty Goat's Poetry Corner' to invite men to speak about their stories and hopes he can offer a platform to those who may not feel comfortable seeking conventional help.
Scott said: "The spoken word nights have been hugely pivotal to share my story, but it’s also enabled others, and empowered others, to get up and share their story in the space that we’ve created for them.
"The creative arts in general is a great way of self-expression and, for me personally with spoken word and poetry it’s been the best therapy. I’ve met so many people in the spoken word and poetry scene who all have a story to tell – some who have come from dark places."
In 2016 Scott found himself on the cliff edge of Beachy Head - a detrimental yet pivotal turning point in his life. He said: "I couldn’t tell you how I got there, and I don’t really know what my genuine intentions were – I was just at a point where I couldn’t struggle any more.
"I was encouraged by people that my words needed to be heard and that has encouraged others. It’s really difficult to take it all in because so much has changed, but I knew from the months following on from 30 August 2016 that I had one roll of the dice left."
And, Scott's not the only one offering up his creative skills to support this initiative. Thomas Hobbs, 25, is the man behind the camera of the official Men's Mental Health Swindon poster. The production assistant at Create Studios wanted to capture images of every day men to break down misconceptions surrounding mental health.
Thom said: "Everybody’s route and everybody’s story’s completely different. People suffer with mental health issues at some point in their life, and I’m not exempt to that."
In February 2018 Thom lost his mother to cancer. As a keen cyclist, Thom decided to ride the route from Land's End to John o' Groats to raise money for Prospect Hospice to "reimburse" the charity for the service they provided to his mother during her end of life care. Unfortunately, on day 6 of his challenge, Thom was hit by a car from behind and left hospitalised.
Thom said: "That really set me back – that left me quite angry. But I’m really lucky to have a support network of family, co-workers at Create Studios, friends and of people who I’ve met along the way. And, not everybody has that – I think that’s one thing that really drove me in this campaign.
"Some people need to turn to outside resources and the idea behind these images is that these are all normal guys – we’re all human beings regardless of our occupations or social status.
"Through the imagery I wanted to really capture empathy just to be able to get people talking and see that you can just go up to the guy next to you wherever you are and just start a conversation. You never know where those conversations might lead you."
Ahead of the launch of the campaign organisations and institutions, - The Wyvern Theatre, GLL Leisure Centres and New College - have already answered the call to promote discussions amongst men about mental health. The council's public health team have since implemented programmes and workshops to help staff, and students, become more aware of how to start and deal with conversations surrounding mental health.
Ms Paradise hopes that more organisations, institutions and businesses will follow suit to make Swindon as a community more accessible to conversations about mental health.
She added: "It’s about changing language and it’s about changing culture. I’m really pleased that Swindon is being so proactive in this.
"I think we’ve come a long way. If Swindon can keep doing things like this whenever we get the opportunity, then new generations can grow up knowing that this is a normal thing – that it doesn’t make you weird.
"In the focus groups the younger guys in their twenties said, ‘We need to redefine masculinity - it doesn’t make you masculine to walk around with no emotional thought process, it makes you a man if you’re able to be supportive to your mates'.
"This campaign isn’t about necessarily just referring people to services; it’s about having basic conversations – and we can all do that."
For further information about Men’s Mental Health Swindon, mental health services in Swindon and events taking place this week visit www.mmhswindon.co.uk