12th Man partners with Norwich Theatre Royal to raise awareness

12th Man project supports men's mental health season at Norwich theatre

There's a problem when it comes to men and mental health. It's not that men's mental health is any worse than women's mental health. It's just that men are not so good in talking about it and, crucially, seeking help. That could be one of the reasons behind the shocking statistic that three out of every four suicides are men.

So, what can be done about it? Nick Little, director of community interest company the Outsiders, believes its innovative, award-winning 12th Man project is part of the answer. Nick and his co-director Oz Osborne came up with the project as a way of taking the positive values of the ‘12th man’, a label often given to the vital team-boosting support from football crowds, to help men in everyday life who may be struggling.

The project has trained a group of Norwich barbers to be mental health first aiders, able to spot the warning signs among customers and point them in the right direction if they need help. They thought the project would be a success. But even they have been surprised by how much of a success it has turned out to be.

“The reason for men not talking about mental health is that overwhelmingly they see it as a sign of weakness,” says Nick. “That is a key thing of the 12th Man campaign; so that men come to see talking about mental health as a form of strength.

“For us it started with thinking about what happens in a football crowd. Men show emotion, they cry and sing, hug each other and kiss. The role of 12th man when the team is struggling and needs support is almost unconditional. We wanted to harness that same attitude so men could support each other every day around mental health.

“Barbers see men all the time and lots of conversations happen sitting in front of the mirror. It’s a reflective thing in lots of ways and we think that is why men open up. We managed to get funding and trained 15 Norwich barbers in 2017. The response has been brilliant.”

Nick hopes the project can expand so more mental health first aiders can be trained, perhaps among taxi drivers, football team and cycling groups. And not just in Norwich but branching out into Suffolk too, with similar schemes in Ipswich or Bury St Edmunds.

“If we are going to change this as a society we have to stop putting the emphasis so much on professionals all the time,” says Nick. “We need to encourage men to see it as being OK to talk about their mental health.”

Steve Bunn, of the city’s Croppers barbers, was among the first to be trained as part of the 12th Man initiative.

“It’s a great way of letting our clients or anyone struggling with any issues know that this is an environment where they can be open and supported,” he says. “We are a long-term business and a lot of our clients have been coming here for years. We consider them friends and over the course of a 45-minute appointment you get to know a lot about them. It does transcend that professional relationship. There’s a degree of proximity that can be disarming and encourage people to open up.

“Hopefully this training give us the skills and confidence to know what to do and say if someone is struggling. There are various avenues we could point people towards if they need help. This is a highly social environment and I like to think most of us could read the cues from people pretty well but the training can only strengthen that. The response and support we’ve had from clients has far outstripped our expectations. We’re grateful to have the opportunity to do it.”

The 12th Man project, which won the innovation section of the Mental Health First Aid awards in November, is one of a number of groups whose work on men’s wellbeing is being highlighted this month in Norwich Theatre Royal’s Creative Matters season, a regular series that aims to stimulate discussion and creativity on important issues within a safe space.

Men’s wellbeing was selected this time around as statistics show middle-aged men locally are very unlikely to seek help and support for their wellbeing and suicide rates are above the national average, particularly among men aged 30 to 64. The theatre has worked with Norfolk County Council’s public health team to create this season, which includes a mix of performances, workshops, exhibitions and film screenings

Theatre Royal chief executive Stephen Crocker said: “The season provides a platform and safe space for people of all ages to explore and engage with key issues in our world today. Following the success of our debut season on gender and sexual identity, we are delighted to be working with the county council on a season which focuses on men’s mental health and the stigma surrounding it.

“Statistics show that men living and working here are some of the least likely to seek help and we hope this season will help show there are people out there to help and reduce the stigma around the whole issue through the power of creativity and discussion.”

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East Anglian Daily Times, 16 January 2018