How podcasts and virtual therapy groups became an unexpected ally for men’s mental health in lockdown

Mark Bailey
·8-min read
Andy Richardson and Tommy Danquah run the ManUp! podcast as well as Zoom check-ins and Instagram Live chats for their followers
Andy Richardson and Tommy Danquah run the ManUp! podcast as well as Zoom check-ins and Instagram Live chats for their followers

Job losses. Financial despair. Isolation. And the unbearable vice-like pressure of lockdown. Covid has triggered a mental health crisis in Britain, with the Centre for Mental Health claiming 8.5 million adults in England alone need support.

ONS data suggests 48 per cent of Brits have suffered a decline in mental wellbeing, with 60 per cent of those experiencing stress and anxiety, and one in five suffering from depression.

That’s why The Telegraph is today launching Mental Health Emergency, a campaign to keep the nation’s mental wellbeing in the spotlight.

But whatever is jolting you awake at 4am, if you are a man the chances are you haven’t told anybody about it. Not your partner. Not your friends or family. You’ve probably not even admitted the severity of the problem to yourself.

Millions of men and women are suffering right now (in fact, data suggests women are 7 per cent more likely than men to be depressed). But the grim reality is that men are less likely to seek help. Gender norms and a desire to “man up” mean that just 36 per cent of referrals for psychological therapies are for men. And men are 40 per cent more likely than women to hide a mental health problem for two years or longer.

As a result, three out of four suicides in Britain are men. And ominous new data suggests the proportion of British men with depression has doubled, from 7 to 15 per cent, during the pandemic. Yet lockdown is stripping men of pressure-release valves, such as trips to the pub, chatting in person to colleagues or taking part in team sports.

But the internet – so often maligned for its toxic effects on mental health – has become an unexpected ally in the battle for men’s mental wellbeing. A wave of grassroots digital mental health groups, Zoom check-ins and podcasts are providing new ways for men to open up and find emotional support.

“The number of men coming to us who have been struggling has definitely increased,” explains Tommy Danquah, a 40-year-old musician and mental health advocate who launched the ManUp! podcast with Andy Richardson, a 47-year-old cameraman, in March 2020. The two friends, who have previously battled depression and panic attacks, also run Zoom check-ins and Instagram Live chats for their followers.

“I dread to think of the increases we’re going to have in suicides and in people needing help,” continues Danquah. “So it’s important that we are out there, trying to give positive messages, and, along with many good charities, just making ourselves available and trying to give men that little bit of hope.”

On their podcast they have interviewed soldiers, authors and therapists about male mental health problems, and share helpful tips, such as the value of confidence-boosting exercise. “Our guests have been in the trenches and hit rock bottom,” says Danquah. “But they got back out – and you can, too.”

Kenny Mammarella-D’Cruz, a 56-year-old personal development coach from London, is the founder of the popular MenSpeak groups, which shifted online during lockdown. He also introduced digital ‘MenCheck-In’ services during the pandemic. “Our daily MenCheck-Ins have saved lives, marriages, men’s marbles, violence to self and others,” he says. “We held three a day on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day and my band of trained facilitators is growing.”

Most of these new digital initiatives are free. Some welcome donations or charge small fees. But all share the same informal and relaxed atmosphere. At the MenSpeak groups, men say “pass” if they don’t want to talk. But the bonds formed are iron-strong. “Many men have made close friends online who they’ve never actually met,” says Mammarella-D’Cruz.

Some of the most criticised aspects of the internet, such as its anonymity and 24/7 accessibility, are proving to be surprisingly useful weapons in the fight to get men to talk.

Jamie Clements, a 27-year-old Londoner who founded the Man Down mental health podcast while working at a finance and technology start-up, believes the net helps men to open up. “With virtual men’s groups, it allows people to engage with this stuff at their own pace and depth,” explains Clements, who was inspired to help other men following his own struggles with anxiety, and the suicide of his close friend.

Jamie Clements: “There’s that element of a mirror being held up to you when you see other men having these conversations”
Jamie Clements: “There’s that element of a mirror being held up to you when you see other men having these conversations”

“You can go to a webinar or join a group, and, like the work with AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) and NA (Narcotics Anonymous), there’s no obligation to share. And in the virtual environment that becomes even easier… you can even have your camera off, and just be there in the space.”

The guests on Clements’ podcast, who range from life coaches to fitness professionals, discuss everything from money worries to loneliness. For his listeners, downloading the podcast is often the first step towards facing up to their own issues, and discovering useful advice. Many will go on to join dedicated online support groups, which can feel less daunting than attending an event in person.

“When we think about men and mental health, the fear around speaking about your emotions and showing your vulnerabilities comes from fear of being exposed or emasculated,” explains Clements. “So if you can be ‘hidden’ to a certain degree, I think that provides a level of comfort that maybe allows people who wouldn’t have previously engaged with this stuff to start engaging.”

Clements says nothing will ever replace the “depth and level of connection” of face-to-face interactions. But the digital format has other advantages. “A benefit of online men’s groups is that we can see each other’s faces on screen all the time, without having to turn our heads, so there's instant feedback on where and how a man is,” says Mammarella-D’Cruz. Once men open up, deep conversations happen surprisingly quickly, says Clements: “It’s amazing to see the speed at which you can go from arms crossed, not talking to anyone, to being right into it.”

Richardson insists men often find it easier to talk to strangers online than to their close friends. “If you take our weekly men’s check-in, men know that they’re not going to get judged, so people on there have broken down in tears before,” he says. “They’ve said it’s an amazing help just to be listened to. There are people that join it who don’t say anything. They just listen to other people and realise there are other men going through the same thing. And then maybe next week, they’ll say something.”

The speed and ease of access to these initiatives is crucial to their appeal. “For a lot of people, the internet is all they have got at the moment,” says Richardson. But the ability to talk to other men about male-specific worries is also important. “Just as we’ve seen for a lot longer and in a more established way with women’s groups, there’s that element of a mirror being held up to you when you see other men having these conversations,” says Clements. “It’s much more relatable.”

Clements was surprised to learn that almost half of the listeners for his Man Down podcast are women, perhaps seeking to better understand the emotions of their partners. “I’ve had lots of women who have messaged me who said they’ve shared it with brothers, fathers or partners, and I think that is a really healthy way to start these kinds of conversations,” he says.

Through their online work, these men are attempting to redefine the modern concept of masculinity. “There’s a lot in the news about ‘toxic masculinity’ but it’s up to men to reclaim what masculinity is,” declares Richardson. “So rather than the negative aspects of masculinity – putting women down, trying to be stronger than everyone – we look at the positive aspects, like our openness and positive strength.”

All the hosts insist that professional services like Samaritans remain the primary source of urgent help for struggling men. But the protagonists of this endearing online community hope to build a network of supplementary, informal support to ensure men feel more comfortable talking about their problems.

“I don’t necessarily think we are filling a gap with these resources,” concludes Clements. “I think it’s allowed a new strand and a new stream of support to open up. So once things go back to normal, I hope these tools stay because I think they will allow people who are struggling to get out of bed to still engage with this stuff. I think digital, when it comes to this kind of support, is going to play a really important role.”

Samaritans provides a 24-hour confidential helpline for those in need. Phone 116 123 or visit Samaritans.org

Read more from our Mental Health Emergency campaign

Have you struggled with mental health during the pandemic? Tell us about your experience in the comments below