On the last day of Men's Mental Health Awareness Month 2023, we hosted a panel talk centred around boys' mental health in schools today: the negative factors, small wins and solutions.
But why does men's mental health need an awareness month? A study by Priory showed that 77% of men have suffered with common mental health symptoms like anxiety, stress or depression, 40% have never spoken to anyone about their mental health, and 29% of those who haven't done so, say they are "too embarrassed" to speak about it, while 20% say there is a "negative stigma" on the issue.
In the context of the current schooling environment, in the last three years, the likelihood of young people having a mental health problem has increased by 50%. Now, five children in a classroom of 30 are likely to have a mental health problem.
There is a mental health crisis for both men (of all ages) and young people, in which masculinity plays a big role.
So what did attendees learn from our panel of experts who shared their knowledge and experience of mental health, masculinity studies, student wellbeing and the current education system? And how can these learnings inspire a new wave of promoting healthy masculinity within the classroom and beyond?
Here are our five key insights from our event: Boys & Mental Health: What can schools do?
1. The term 'toxic masculinity'
This term has been hugely popularised in the last 5 or so years, with conversations on the negative impact of traditional masculinity becoming much more commonplace, and an increased awareness of accountability playing an important role in men's behaviour.
While it is defined by Oxford languages as "a set of attitudes and ways of behaving stereotypically associated with or expected of men, regarded as having a negative impact on men and on society as a whole", the term is flippantly used among young people, on social media, and in media as a whole, which in Voicebox facilitators' experiences, has led to defensiveness from male participants. It adds to an idea of young boys being wrong or in trouble, which can instantly shut down an open, honest conversation.
Chris Filbey who is Assistant Head and lead of pupil welfare and wellbeing at Epsom College said that the recent focus on toxic masculinity is right to a degree, "but it's led to young men and boys struggling to articulate the positives of being a man. There's a sense that being a teenager is like being in a goldfish bowl and childhood is shortening, and those crucial formative years when children are growing up need an environment where they can make mistakes and learn from them free from adult pressures feels like it's being taken away".
Teachers and leaders should be questioning the use of the word 'toxic' when discussing masculinity - what do we really mean when we say something is 'toxic'? During Voicebox workshops, we prefer to describe masculinity in terms of 'healthy' or 'unhealthy'. We don't want anyone to feel singled out, uncomfortable, ashamed or villainized. Our role as leaders and educators is not to berate, tell off or shame, but rather to understand, listen, and encourage.
Watch a snippet of Chris's point here.
2. The impact of social media
While schools can have more of an impact over what their pupils interact with during school hours, the content they consume on their phones can be untamable and therefore difficult to challenge.
An October 2021 survey found that 91% of 15 to 16-year-olds used social media, with TikTok being used on average 97 minutes per day.
We were joined for our event by Ellexsys, a Year 13 student from West Hatch High School, who shared their thoughts on the impact social media had had on himself and his peers.
"You see a lot of men with bodies that are modelled off steroids. If you're a boy who isn't confident, you feel a pressure to look a certain way. [...} There's also a pressure to succeed. Social media shows you everyone's best. It makes you feel like you're failing".
It's no new idea that social media enables friends and influencers to showcase themselves at their 'best', often filtered, edited or even photoshopped. As Ellexsys points out, the pressure to look a certain way has a negative effect on boys and young men.
When asked about how schools could address this issue, Ellexsys said "young people need to understand that TikTok isn't accurate or realistic. We need a heightened awareness of this".
Stuart Davenport who is the School Counsellor at The Complete Works School explained that as his role meant he interacted frequently with SEN and neurodivergent students, he'd found that "in some ways, social media and specifically TikTok helps our students to be able to understand their own emotions". Indeed, the many strands of TikTok's content can provide safe spaces and comfort in validating experiences and identities.
3. Why do young men like Andrew Tate?
The ex kickboxer and influencer's name got a lot of mentions throughout our talk. We began the event with some contextualising statistics including the fact that 67% of young people had encountered Andrew Tate's content, with 52% of 16-17 year old males, and 44% of 18-24 year old males retaining a positive view of his material.
But what is the appeal of Andrew Tate to young men? Facilitator and PhD researcher Will Hudson explained that Tate has a certain "marketability" to his online presence. He projects the idea of being a strong confident man, which is easy to consume and can strike a chord with many young men who want to be just that. However, underneath all this is a warped, dangerous and highly misogynistic view of women in relation to men.
Will went on to explain that the concept of 'healthy masculinity', while it can hold the same values of strength and confidence but also consideration and kindness, is a "much harder sell" to young people. Therefore we need to be thinking about the ways we can market the appeal of healthy masculinity - how can this benefit young men's lives? What positive aspects can they gain from it? Watch a snippet of Will's point here.
As Chris added, we also need to focus on highlighting positive role models for boys who demonstrate healthy masculinity: "Boys want to focus on being strong, but they don't have a role model to aspire to. [...] They don't understand how traditional masculinity has a place in the modern conversation about men".
Marcus Rashford, Jordan Stephens (from Rizzle Kicks) and Brendan Fraser all spring to mind as great role models for men and boys in an age of prioritising mental health, challenging gender stereotypes and accountability.
4. What progress has already been made?
Chris enlightened us with his school's framework of tackling the issues mentioned above. Epsom College has a "whole school approach" to conversations about Andrew Tate: "Everyone needs to have an ear out for classroom and corridor talk. If one teacher turns a blind eye to a comment then it won't work".
On male students opening up about their feelings he added that the school currently had around a 50/50 split with boys and girls who visit the school counsellor.
Stuart added that "there's a bigger focus on feelings and discussing emotions. At The Complete Works we're lucky enough to be able to offer 1-1 sessions with students and I'm able to work with teachers independently to help them unpack what will best help their student. We focus on allowing students to share what they want to share, when they want to share. What is safety for our students? What do they need in a space to be able to talk more openly?"
5. Solutions for the future
An action point for schools suggested by Will was highlighting exemplary leaders within the school body who can be healthy role models for other pupils. This might look like promoting focus groups who could be the root of building healthy masculinity within the school culture.
When referring to the continuing trepidation in boys about talking about how they’re feeling, and their mental health, Ellexsys said that children should be taught about mental health at primary age. "When I was younger, all I knew about mental health was the word 'depression'. It doesn't have to be an overwhelming conversation but it's about planting the knowledge so that these children can understand their own emotions as they arise when they get older". Implementing mental health into the PSHE curriculum earlier on can allow students to be more equipped in managing their emotions and therefore reacting to others'.
"Have a PSHE curriculum that is reactive" Chris added, "the only mandatory thing on a PSHE curriculum is RSE but the rest can be sculpted by the school, therefore they have a responsibility to shape this".
As Men's Mental Health Awareness Month concludes, our panel discussion delved into the alarming challenges faced by boys in today's schools. The statistics paint a stark picture of a mental health crisis affecting both men and young people, with masculinity at its core. The term 'toxic masculinity' was critically examined, urging a shift towards discussing masculinity in terms of 'healthy' or 'unhealthy' to foster understanding. Social media, especially TikTok, emerged as a potent influence, exerting pressure on young men to conform to unrealistic standards. The impact of influencers like Andrew Tate underscored the need to redefine and market the appeal of healthy masculinity, emphasising positive role models. Despite the challenges, progress has been made in schools, adopting a whole-school approach and fostering open conversations. Looking ahead, potential solutions include promoting healthy role models, integrating mental health education from a young age, and crafting a responsive PSHE curriculum.
In essence, our exploration serves as a call to action for educators, parents, and society to collectively work towards creating an environment that nurtures healthy masculinity, open dialogue, and emotional well-being for young men in schools and beyond.
Want to learn more? Don't forget to catch up with the full panel discussion on our YouTube channel.
Inspired by these key insights? Looking to better your school's approach to promoting healthy masculinity in the classroom and beyond? Get in touch with Voicebox co-founder Jack to find out more about our packages, workshops and assemblies.