We talked to the creator of HIM + HIS, a new book that encourages men to talk about depression, anxiety and other mental health problems
Mental health can be difficult to talk about for anyone, but it can be even harder when you’re a man. ‘Boys don’t cry’, ‘man-up’... the mantras we instil in young men don’t encourage them to talk about how they feel, while the statistics show the fall out. In the UK, women are more likely to be diagnosed with a mental health disorder, twice as likely when it comes to anxiety, and yet, suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 years old, with the number of men taking their own lives up to four times higher than the number of women. This spells a disconnect between what people are going through internally, what they are able to share with others, and their ability to access and receive treatment.
Hélène Selam Kleih, a 23-year writer and model from South London, has watched this disconnect play out up-close. Her twin brother was diagnosed with psychosis in 2014 and is now institutionalised full-time. Between visiting him in a psychiatric ward over the last year or so, she decided to process what was going on and help others in similar situations by making a book that gets people talking about men and their mental health. Named HIM + HIS, it’s a compilation of responses, by people of all genders, to the topic of why boys and men aren’t encouraged to express themselves, and it asks its contributors to do so however they please.
Of the 100 names who gave something to the book, some are doctors, psychiatrists, men Hélène met through her brother’s treatment, her friends, friends of friends and those strangers who just reached out on the internet. Dazed Beauty Contributing Editor Athena Pagington shares the faces she painted for a Samaritans campaign, poet James Massiah shares his piece ‘I’m Fine’ and artist Wilson Oryema also dedicates work. Below, for World Mental Health Day, Hélène talks about why she decided to put together HIM + HIS, what she learned from the process and why it matters.
What were you thinking about when you started, in terms of why HIM + HIS was needed?
Well, there are a lot of support networks in female communities. Women talk more between themselves and express themselves creatively. I realised that men don’t. Whatever background they are coming from – socio-economic, race, cis or trans – they still don't really talk about their mental health. Mothers don’t ask their sons how they are feeling. We rarely asked my brother how he was feeling, outside of his autism, and he was cared for ridiculously – he’s like a little brat! But he still developed what he developed when he was at uni, alone, because it was just assumed that ‘you are a man and you are coping'. When he went into the healthcare system, the questions people asked were very closed. “Are you feeling suicidal? Yes, or no…“ And then you look at the people who are addressing those issues, and a lot of the time they're women, so they don’t address issues around masculinity, and the way that different men have grown up in their respective communities.
Think about what a man is supposed to be in society – strong and not vulnerable – and before the institution he went by all these normative stereotypes. To then be put in a little cage and be told what to do, to finally be asked how you are feeling and the answer not being taken into account, it just breeds more pain and more silence. You are less likely to talk to someone you don’t feel comfortable with, it’s obvious.
”I know the reason my brother developed psychosis was because of stress, the pressure of feeling like you are losing yourself, not being able to talk to anyone and then spiralling, and many of the accounts were just spirals, of men who just didn’t feel in control of their lives.” – Hélène Selam Kleih
Is that what happened with your brother?
Pretty much. He was victimised and not seen as a human anymore, someone without personality or humour. He just became this figure on a chart. Everytime I visited him, some of the guys there were still trying to flirt with me and would still have banter. But then I would watch them in really dark moments having to be restrained and sedated. They don’t really have anyone to talk to them in other respects outside of medication. You have your psychiatrist, but sometimes that one psychiatrist is being shared by seven different guys and it’s more about whether the medication is working rather than how you are feeling. It’s just a really simple question, “how are you feeling?” and it can be hard to get an answer beyond just: “I’m fine”. I guess HIM + HIS is about getting people to answer the question, although it’s less about talking and more about having freedom to express yourself in whatever way possible. It was really, “this is a blank page, what’s going on with you?”
So the brief was deliberately broad?
It was deliberate, yes. But the brief had my personal story because otherwise it was just a random girl asking men, “Hey what have you gone through in life?” And a lot of the men I had been approaching hadn’t necessarily been that vocal about their mental health before. I know the reason my brother developed psychosis was because of stress, the pressure of feeling like you are losing yourself, not being able to talk to anyone and then spiralling, and many of the accounts were just spirals, of men who just didn’t feel in control of their lives. Some of them were really reluctant to talk about it. And I think what lots of the contributors struggled with was that, when I literally said “write what you feel like...” It was too broad. And then I would have to edit it. That was probably the hardest part, when you are trying not to filter someone’s expression but then you are editing it...
How much did you filter?
It’s not about things being PC. There have been submissions that are really dark. It has kind of been a labour of love having to read these really upsetting accounts, and then go and see my brother at a mental institution. It was heavy, but also the reason that I want to still include submissions like that is because how you express your mental health or illness can manifest in so many different ways. I didn't edit much because it’s more about why they created it, anyway, than the actual creation. It’s about the act of creation, so it’s not meant to appeal to everyone’s taste. It's meant to be this anthology of all these different men and their experiences, whether or not they are explicit, so that other men can find some form of comfort in it.
It’s not just men that contributed, there are women too... can you talk a bit about that?
There are loads of women who have contributed; friends, lovers, just anyone who is affected by men and mental health. Family members are in some ways more affected by the mental health of their loved one than the actual person with the disorder themself. And a lot of the time they are the ones that struggle because they are still functioning in normal society, and normal society doesn’t allow you talk about these things, or allow you to have breaks, because it is not ‘productive’. That said, I think in a lot of the panels or charity talks I’ve been to while doing the book, the conversation can be hijacked by females, and that is not what the intention is in the book. So there are accounts from females, but to show why men need to speak more.
You said it can be difficult when you are the support network of someone struggling because you are not granted the space to talk about your own struggles? Is that something that you have experienced?
Definitely. It can be about the field you work in. I’m a full time model, so you go to shoots and it is small talk all the time, like any field. Sometimes I would be getting all these missed calls from my brother and panic, but I would have to play the model. It's not to say that you should be really vocal in your workplace and that your boss should give you loads of leeway, society doesn’t work like that, but it's important to have a space that you feel comfortable in so that you can express that you are having a shit day. And I think that is still really rare for all of us.
Having done this book, what have you learnt about the pressures put on men today?
Whatever you define your sexuality as, I think the biggest one was conforming to the hetero definition of what it is to be manly, and that is usually aggressive, strong, mentally and physically. You can’t be weak, you can't have a day off and feel shit, you just have to be productive, you have to be there to earn money. And you don't really assess your soul, your feelings. Quite a few of the black men who contributed focused on how their blackness equates to a pressure to looking strong. For example, IGGYLDN shared images from this film called Black Boys Dont Cry. He focused on his body being aggressive, intimidating people, rather than it being a welcoming vessel.
The focus was more on psychosis and depression, hallucinations, schizophrenia, generally feeling low. There were a couple of guys who talked about body dysmorphia, but no one was that explicit talking about body dysmorphia issues because there is still so much stigma around it. I probed a bit too hard with one of the contributors and he backed down and was like “I don’t want this in”. I always left it open saying “you could be anonymous if you want, because it’s here to benefit others and yourself” but I think he was too terrified to express what he went through.
Overall though, I think also the fact that I was a female with no attachment to them, not romantic or familial, made men more comfortable with me, because they didn’t feel like I was going to judge them. I was basically just Siri. That kind of became quite problematic because I would get random messages from a lot of the contributors for support. I have realised this book is amazing but I can’t do it by myself, so hopefully when it comes out I can turn into more of a support network, not just an online support network, but a place where men can physically meet each other and see how different but then also how similar they are. A lot of the men in their accounts focused a lot on not having a language to express themselves. And if there was one kind of language, that they could find between themselves, where I could just facilitate, not add to or hijack the discussion – that would be the goal.
”I also hope it encourages people to not associate mental health with so many negative connotations, because mental health is different to mental illness; mental health should be something that we all practice and take care of, but we don’t.” – Hélène Selam Kleih
What do you hope people will take away from reading the book?
The book is supposed to be treating the root before the rot, to instigate a community or conversation, and not in this cheesy, performative “men cry too” or “let’s all hold hands” kind of way, because I doubt a kid going through things is going to see a poster like that on the tube and think 'l really relate'. I hope it makes people more open, that people can find some normality in whatever strangeness or confusion they are facing. A lot of the time with mental health or mental illness people can get swallowed up by how scary the whole scenario is, and that is true of the families too, as you don’t really know how to express what is going on verbally or physically. You end up just harbouring it and that silence breeds more pain.
I also hope it encourages people to not associate mental health with so many negative connotations, because mental health is different to mental illness; mental health should be something that we all practice and take care of, but we don’t. It shouldn’t be such a heavy topic, it should be more light hearted where it can be. Now, I think I cope with things so much better because I can accept them for what they are, see humour in them. In my family, things have actually got worse with my brother, but we are all much more comfortable in the way that we express ourselves with one another. Things become more bearable when you share them with people and you can look at them from a different stance. That is kind of half of the cure – as well as understanding that a lot of what they are going through is normal or common, and that hopefully it won't last forever.