“If We All Make An Effort To Check In With 3 Or 4 Men In Our Lives, We Can Make a Significant Difference” How Are You Today, Robert Dunne? Talking Male Mental Health For Movember

Movember is upon us and to help spread awareness of this incredibly important month for Male mental health, Movember Country Director Robert Dunne talked to Capsule about learning how to express emotions after a typical Kiwi male upbringing, how to talk to men you think might need some help and the signs to look for if a pal is in trouble.  

How are you today, Rob?
Yeah, good thank you! Busy – it’s our time to shine, so there’s plenty to do but that’s a good thing. I’d be a bit worried if that wasn’t the case. Our focus at the moment is participation; we want to get as many people participating as possible, because that’s moustaches, that’s conversations and that all funnels into donations at the end of the month.

The bigger we can make the community, the bigger chance we’ve got of getting the right messages out to men. So, it’s a big push to get people to go to Movember.com and signing up.

For the nine years you’ve worked with Movember, the cause has always been split between prostate health and mental health. The entire conversation about mental health has changed, quite drastically, in that time. When did you notice that the awareness of that mental health side was increasing?
I’ve had so many comments in the past few years about how it’s great that we ‘now’ fund mental health initiatives but as long as I’ve worked at Movember, we have. I think the conversation probably started to change four or five years ago and it’s completely flipped on its head in the past two years.

So many more people are identifying their passion or their reason for their cause to be mental health and suicide prevention in the past couple of years.

What do you think was behind that change?
I think people like Sir John Kirwan and Mike King, and government initiatives like depression.org and public campaigns started the momentum, it started the conversation, when these people who were well-known were brave enough to share their own experiences.

We saw a little bit of it overseas as well, with well-known people like Stephen Fry adding to the momentum. I think it encouraged a bit of bravery among our more general public; they started to have their own conversations in our communities, in our schools, in our pubs and sports clubs.

I don’t think it was one trigger; I think you just hit a stage where that momentum becomes so significant that… it’s not normalised, that’s not the right word because we’re not there yet, but the topics and the subjects have become normalised enough that we’re comfortable having the conversation.

We’re becoming more comfortable saying we know of someone or even ourselves personally, that we’ve had some association with male mental health and suicide. With Movember, we wanted to aggregate all that energy and continue to drive that conversation because we’ve been doing it for 10 years.

And it is important to look at it from a gendered lens, because those conversations are a little bit different for men. It’s about having those conversations in a language that men understand and that they’re comfortable with.

What were some of the messages you were given growing up about how you, as a male, were supposed to handle emotions?
The phrase ‘mental health’ is not one I remember as a young person, whether at home or at school. It was more depression – if someone had depression, that was how it was spoken about and it was something you solved with medicine. That’s certainly how I remember it being when I was a young person.

And it wasn’t something that was spoken about openly – certainly not referred to as mental health. I personally had a very stereotypical New Zealand upbringing – didn’t show emotion, didn’t talk about emotion. Even now, I still probably find it easier to talk to large groups of people or men that I don’t know that well, about the things that men should try and do, than I do to my own friends and my own family. That’s still a nervous conversation, or something I have a bit more anxiety about, than I do literally talking to a thousand people.

We’ve talked about how different mental health is from a gendered perspective – when you were young, were you aware of how different female friendships were from male friendships in terms of having those tricky conversations?
Not at all. Not even close, to be honest. That’s stuff I’ve learned as I’ve grown older – and with 10 years of working at Movember, learning about the value of it and also there’s the research and information to back it up. As you get older, you realise how important it is.

It’s not about how many relationships you have but it’s about having good ones, really strong ones, where you can talk to people about significant things in your life. Whether that’s one person or whether that’s 10, whether it’s one setting or where you’ve got a bunch of environments where you’re able to do it, it’s certainly something I’ve learned as an older person, just how important that is.

I look back now and it’s 100% by luck, rather than by design, that for me, being involved in a variety of different sports, you realise that it was actually such a healthy thing. You interacted with so many different people, you had to work together for a common goal, you had to form different sorts of relationships with different sorts of people.

Those are all bloody handy skills to have and that flowed on to when I travelled a lot in my twenties, same thing – putting yourself in new environments, meeting new people, having to problem solve. It doesn’t have to be sport, it can be any community setting, but if you don’t have those opportunities, it can be a lot harder to form those relationships and have people that you can talk to on a regular basis.

Rob with Matt Chisholm, host of the TVNZ show Man Enough

How has this knowledge of mental health and how to have those conversations changed your personal relationships?
Significantly. It’s still a constant work in progress but I try really hard, harder than I did as a younger man, when you take those relationships for granted. The research supports this as well – when you’re at high school and university, that’s when you have your largest group of mates. You’re having these informal, shoulder-to-shoulder conversations with other men and you’re doing it all the time, which is really healthy.

But as men get older, their group of friends gets smaller and we’re not good at keeping that circle of friends as we drop out of those settings, whereas females are fantastic at it. So I try really, really hard to continue to have those settings – stay involved in sport at my local clubs, stay involved in my boys’ sports teams; about three or four times a year I have different reasons to get together with my best friends from high school. Sometimes there are a couple of beers involved but I can tell my wife it’s all under the guise of men’s health!

It’s really important to still do that because you can ask so many guys when was the last time you talked to your best mate from high school, or your best man at your wedding, and they’ll say three months, six months, 12 months… which is too long. It’s hard – so you have to keep getting on the phone to your mates, keep finding opportunities to catch up. It’s too easy to say ‘I haven’t got time’, but I find if you treat mental health like you do work or exercise by putting it in the calendar, locking it in and making a commitment, it helps a lot.

How did you maintain that connection this year?
It’s one of those things I’m seeing talked about a lot – that despite the fact that it’s been such a challenging year for so many people, so many positive things have come out of it. My friends and I had Friday night Zoom calls, all through lockdown. We’d catch up – God knows what we talked about, it was terrible chat – but none of us would talk on the phone once a week, but through lockdown, we’d have 10-15 guys on a Zoom call for a couple of hours every Friday night.

It’s kind of what we say in Movember – if you do something in November that you think is really good, whether it’s a bit of exercise or catching up with a friend, knowing your family history or making an effort to be sociable, whatever it is… keep doing it. Moustaches are for 30 days but men’s health is for every day, so make it stick.

That’s what we’ve tried to do with the boys – touch wood, most of the boys have been pretty good, there have been a couple of job losses, but environmental changes are big risks for blokes, so just keeping an eye out for each other and knowing when someone does have a change in circumstance, that’s a great opportunity to reach out and let them know you’re there if anything is required.

What are some practical ways to reach out to a man that you might be worried about, in a way that works for men?
We use the ALEC model:
Ask – even if they say “Yep, no worries at all,” ask a second question or a third question.
Listen – don’t try and solve problems, just listen. Listening is a great skill and letting someone verbalise something they’re going through is a really important thing. Providing the setting – a safe setting where a fella feels secure – and being the person to be able to do that is great.
Encourage Action – if you are worried, encourage action; whether it’s something you’d be able to help with at a personal level but if you’re concerned, encourage professional action. There are services out there, there’s the 1737 line, there’s Healthline, there are GPs, there are psychologists. There are quite a lot of options – fantastic services and fantastic people and it can all be done in confidence.
Check in – get into that habit, whether it’s once a week, whether it’s once a month, whether it’s a phone call, whether it’s going for a walk together, catching up for lunch… we’ve all got to find our ‘how’ and that’s about knowing each other.

It’s a good framework for anyone to work with – it’s simple but it’s as a good a framework as any, and sometimes the simple stuff works in the first instance. We know with men, they don’t have to be mentally ill to take significant action, quite often it’s environmental – it’s relationship, it’s financial, it’s change of employment – that really triggers things.

So it’s keeping an eye out for those things – if you’re looking, it’s easy to see… but you’ve got to be looking. If we all make an effort to check in with the three or four men that mean the most to us, we can make a significant difference to the state of mental health for men in New Zealand.

For information on Movember – including how to sign up and donate, visit Movember.com. Rob is also involved in the new TVNZ show Man Enough, an in-depth look at mental health in Kiwi men, available now on TVNZOnDemand.

Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor 

Lifeline – 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP)

Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)

Healthline – 0800 611 116

Samaritans – 0800 726 666 

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