How did you guys get involved with CALM?
Charlie Watts: It was my 29th birthday a couple of months ago. On my birthday I always like to do a workout significant to my edge – so this year I decided to run 29k. My birthday was on Monday 13 August, and on the Sunday I decided to run 29 kilometres - having previously never run more than 12k. That would be a decent challenge!
I thought, if I'm going to put myself through that much pain, why don't I do it for a good cause and raise some money for charity? I asked Instagram for ideas – and CALM sprung up. Obviously male suicide is a massive issue, and it resonated with me because quite a few of the trainers have spoken about suicide in the past. One of clients had had previous involvement with CALM so he put us in touch.
We've always raise money for a charity every Fight Night. This one we decided to support CALM. The whole thing came together, and before we know it we have this massive campaign that's created momentum and is raising awareness about male suicide.
What prompted the #StrongNotSilent campaign?
Chris Baugh: So Charlie raised money with the run – over £1,000. Then we started talking with CALM and our charity boxing event became the obvious next move. With those two elements in the mix, we started having more conversations in the gym about the issue. It became clear that it's personally touched a lot of trainers: one guy in particular comes from a community in Wales with the second highest suicide rate in the UK. Nobody's saying anything about it, nobody's talking about it; everybody knows it's going on but nobody discusses it.
In our gym, we have a very diverse group, but there are some headline guys training with us who are pretty hardcore. They were passionated about this issue, it resonated with them. We realised that if we, as a pretty 'alpha brand', decided to take a stand and speak up we could potentially reach an audience who hadn't really been spoken to. Men who find it hard to talk about their feelings won't listen to people who are good at talking about their feelings – they don't relate to that, given that they themselves don't feel the same way.
Everyone who saw the pictures said 'I want to support that'
We're not natural spokespeople, we're not mental health professionals, we're not campaigners. We just decided that if we put a campaign together and we led from the front and we shared some of the things that we struggled with, it might encourage a few other people who previously hadn't thought it was acceptable to do so. And the response that we had in the planning stages along was more that we expected.
We did this photoshoot. Everyone who saw the pictures, even before they went live, said 'I want to support that, I want to post something on my social media.' So this notion of solidarity became really clear, which is why we instigated the Strong Not Silent portrait series, opening it up for anyone to support us. We also have the public events that combine training and talking, to use the workout as a catalyst for openness.
There are five different calls-to-action: you can donate, you can buy tickets to an event, you can buy a #StrongNotSilent T-shirt, you can do the social media portrait or you can come to Fight Night.
Images from #StrongNotSilent
Why do men tend to find it harder to discuss their feelings than women?
Chris: There's some research that suggests, sociologically speaking, men are channelled to be more stoic when it comes to their emotions. I'm sure there're some genetic reasons, some brain chemistry reasons, some hormonal reasons.
More generally, there are still very strong images across society that suggest the type of men worse affected by this are told to aspire to an image that isn't particularly emotionally open. Even though men are chastised for not being emotionally open, they're also been told and shown that stoic is cool. I think that's changing, but mainstream masculinity is still designed around that tough guy, strong and silent image.
Does that image correlate with the much higher suicide rate among men?
Chris: We're not experts but from my understanding, there are two statistics which are important in relation to male suicide. Men are more likely to attempt suicide, but they are also more likely to succeed at suicide. From our conversations with CALM, that's about how they attempt suicide. They tend to act in a more extreme way, and use more violent ways of ending their lives which tend to have a higher success rate.
There's also the burden of having to act alone: men are supposed to support others but not seek support themselves. That's changing but not quickly enough.
The mental benefits of exercise are well documented – but surely there's an additional communal benefit in joining a gym?
Absolutely. I read a piece of research recently that said the amount of meaningful interactions you have on a daily basis is actually a massive predictor of your life expectancy. People who have more meaningful interactions on a daily basis, people who are connected to communities, actually live longer. It's one of several factors but I was amazed it was in the top five. If it's having an effect like that on physical health then it's fair to say it'll be beneficial to mental health as well.
'Identity' workout and talk at Manor
In a perfect world, how would the conversation on mental health look, say, 20 years from now?
Charlie: If we can get people to a point where they're able to share their problems with others, I think that's definitely a step in the right direction. There's definitely been a cultural shift towards that – the research shows that if you do share your struggle, you're less likely to think about things like suicide. From a personal perspective, If we can reach as many people as possible, alleviate some of their personal stresses, and hopefully have a positive impact on their life then that's definitely a step in the right direction.
Chris: I think you can definitely see there's movement in the right direction – and ultimately change comes about through change makers, right? It's important to move away from the idea that people suffering from depression are just a bit lacklustre, and recognise it as an actual mental illness. The medicalisation of mental health is important – inevitably, as science and technology progresses, that knowledge of the brain will improve. Even if there were no social changes, people are going to know more about brain chemistry and mental health as a discipline of science, and that will inevitably lead to more awareness.
We know people thrive in environments that feel open, welcoming and genuine
In terms of what we're trying to do, we don't claim to have every solution: we just know people thrive in environments that feel open, welcoming and genuine. We tell people if we're not happy with something they're doing: we don't put on a fake smile. Equally, when we express encouragement or support, people know it's coming from a genuine place. You've got to be nasty to be nice, as somebody once told me. If all you ever do is smile, tell people what they want to hear, nobody feels like anything you say is genuine.
Millions of people experience mental health issues – but millions more do not. How can you help a friend who's struggling, while not necessarily being able to relate to what they are going through?
Chris: That's something I've struggled with myself as someone who knows people who are going through mental health struggles. I can't tell you that I've got a one-catch answer – it's difficult when you're living a busy life, you're not a mental health outreach worker, but people in your life are going through a hard time. It's difficult to know what to do. Making yourself available is the starting point.
People have to be honest: if you've got a friend who's always on a downer, and you're struggling yourself, cos you're exhausted, you work hard, blah, blah, blah, does that mean you're going to be the Good Samaritan who's on the phone for two hours every day? Realistically, no. You shouldn't feel guilty if you don't always make the right decisions.
Some things are a no-brainer. Be a genuine, authentic person who people feel like they can talk to. If you spend your life worried about your appearance people will not feel able to open up to you – however much you care about each other.
If someone opens up to you it's a clear demonstration of trust
Charlie: Since we've been supporting CALM, a lot of people have reached out with very emotional stories, some linked to suicide. Ultimately we're not experts – that's when you should refer to the experts such as CALM and Samaritans. It's very important for people to know services like this are available.
Chris: It's a difficult balance to strike – as a friend you want to try and help, rather than immediately refer people onto an agency. It's about knowing where your boundaries lie. If someone opens up to you it's a clear demonstration of trust. It's about helping as much as you can, while also making sure that person feels like they are in control of their own choices. They have to make a decision if they want to call one of these agencies for help.
Making it feel like it's OK to call one of these agencies, while also doing all you can to support, that's really powerful. Often people don't call helplines because they feel it's a sign that there's something wrong with them; whereas if they talk to you as a friend, and you make it feel that it's OK to call a helpline, if you really are struggling, that can really help. Hopefully campaigns like ours make people feel more comfortable reaching out for the help that is there.