“It’s great to listen”: How Man About Town is using creativity to support men’s mental health in the City of Leeds. Gareth Dakin and Leeds Arts Health and Wellbeing Network explain:
The project, launched in December 2019, is funded by Leeds Community Foundation until 2022. Whilst the original focus was on men in the 40 – 55 age group, it now includes men from their mid-twenties to the age of 80. Creative sessions they might choose to attend include exercise and socialising, using art forms such as music, photography, and painting in a space for men to share their experiences — combatting the rising number of men facing isolation as well as the suicide mortality rate — in Yorkshire and Humberside. According to one project leader, “the statistics are why the fund got put together in the first place.”
Alan White’s 2016 report, The state of men’s health in Leeds, was the inspiration for Man About Town. Alan: “Men typically have higher levels of preventable premature death and chronic ill‐health compared to women, and Leeds is no exception… The male suicide mortality rate in Leeds was nearly five times that of females. The rate for years of life lost due to suicide for men aged 15‐74 years in Leeds was 28% higher compared to the rate observed across England and Wales, but the female rate in Leeds was similar to the female rate observed nationally.”
In response, the original structure was to deliver sessions around music, digital, and film. Whilst some excellent musicians are involved, it was never about how good they are. Early activities also include Virtual Reality (VR) play days at a theatre space, where those participating were introduced to art which has been created through tech. The VR activities were changed each week.
“We would have men challenging themselves on virtual plank walks and run around a physical space on one of the many free programmes.”
So many people had to adapt with the onset of the pandemic, and Man About Town was no exception. Isolation meant that support was more needed than ever before. In came ‘Vinyl Picnics’, where music could be listened to together; then there were ukelele sessions on allotments, weekly get together for photography, and virtual open mic nights.
Tapping into nature and having some exercise is also a great help, and this is where group walks around local parks come in, as well as forest bathing walks and golf sessions on a driving range. Challenges have been provided and accepted, whether creative or physically exerting. They include teaching, learning and practising, whilst all the time empowering men to change their outlook and their mindset.
One of those who joined the project said: “I found these (activities) really helped my state of mind and gave me something to get up for. I was introduced to other members who had experienced similar problems to me, and we could come together and produce something new that we could be proud of.”
Participants engage in conversation with one another to check in on their current mentality and mood, and they have the opportunity to use tools such as a wellness wheel, giving everyone ownership of their activities and the chance to create the life changes they choose.
A group’s leader reflects on a participant’s story: “A referred guy, in crisis with regular visits to his home, came to us, and within two weeks was teaching people ukulele in groups, was participating on Zoom, which he’d never done in his life, and had taken ownership using music and he’s proud of it. His smile is so big now and I see a transformed person.”
Whilst it is important at all times for clinical supervision to be accessible and support for anyone in distress is available, the group has become its own support structure where beneficiaries, volunteers, and group leaders can lean on each other with stories about their own experiences — which is a great example of the project’s success. The project’s creators, too, are in a position to express their own mental health needs using professional supervision and support. A leader of the project describes their own personal learning experience, saying:
“I didn’t realise (at first) that ‘this stuff’ has to go somewhere. After taking advice, I regularly take care of my own mental health. One thing I have learned – when you go into these things you have to be prepared.”
Man About Town will continue to seek funding to continue running the project and helping men who benefit from its engagement and support. What we can all learn from Man About Town — and the people who work within it — is to listen to the men in our lives. As a project leader passionately describes:
“Listen. You know that thing: “it’s good to talk?” Well, it’s great to listen. The amount of respect you get from somebody by just listening to them. It’s good to have empathy in some degree. It’s important to them that you know, but you’ve got to listen. They’ll feel like they exist, which is so important.”