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International Men's Day: A Discussion about Mental Health

In celebration of International Men's Day this month, Kate Haresnape (Deputy Chair of the Gender Equality Network) met with Animation graduate Nathan Addai to discuss his creative media and brand Mental Roots.

By Gender Equality Network (GEN) - 18 November 2022

Nathan Addai embodies so many qualities that are integral to this year's theme for International Men's Day - 'Helping Men and Boys'. The Gender Equality Network is pleased to celebrate this day by highlighting positive role models and raising awareness of men's wellbeing. 

On how Mental Roots came about and the motivation to broach the topic of mental health through creative work.

Ok, so I think I'll start off by clarifying that I am in no way claiming to be a mental health expert, it's more kind of being an advocate for the topic, I guess my initial focus was more just trying to counter the mindset of burnout.

I think one thing as a creative and an animator that I wanted to do to help improve my relationship with my work is to make my creative work as therapeutic as possible. What I mean by that is the sort of themes that I explore in my films reflect the heart of who I am and the culture I come from. In my case, that's acknowledging and celebrating my roots as a black person and I felt like if I could be more authentic in my creative work, that could help me improve the relationship I had with my creative craft.

And so, in regards to starting Mental Roots, Mental Roots is my creative organisation which uses animation (my speciality) as well as podcasting and other digital media as a means to address the roots behind the different things affecting mental health for Afro-Caribbeans. But, of course, there are a lot of transferable things with other communities such as Asian communities and white working-class communities as well. So, the work has impacted a wide range of people but the priority, for now, is focusing on the underrepresented group of Afro-Caribbeans.

On how to get the conversations going with men who may be reluctant to talk about their mental health.

I'd say, to start off any conversation, you want to understand the priorities of the person so, if you show that you appreciate what their priorities are, then that would open up trust. And trust is the key word here because we live in a skeptical world. People are feeling more pressured than ever before to keep to themselves, improve their finances, improve their portfolio in order to get ahead, etc, so we really need to be more intentional about how we build trust with one another.

I understand there's a time and a place to just give very short answers but generally when I try and connect with other people, and especially other young men, I might ask them how they're doing but then follow that up by asking what they've been up to today or aim to find out about what they're working towards. And usually that kind of opens up a conversation on what their bigger goals are. Then I'll start asking them about what they're interested in to really get behind why people do what they do. They might then ask something about me and I can open up a bit more about myself.

Other men might relate to that but, for them, it also might be playing football with a friend every week and then, after they play football, they have a conversation about how they're doing. So, again, it's about creating a safe space, finding what you like to do, and using that as a vessel to have these more difficult conversations.

Mental Roots podcast

View Mental Roots video transcript

On disproportionate suicide rates among men - the challenges in overcoming this and potential causes. 

In terms of what causes men disproportionately to commit suicide, we need to look at culture and normalised ideas of masculinity. When we look back historically - and even now - the expectation of men is that traditionally we are the breadwinners of the family. We are the ones who need to protect the family and, although to some degree I think it is important for men to have strength and resilience in doing that, I do believe in a healthy balance of masculinity - that men need to have accountability for their actions.

I think also we need to have a more contextual understanding of why we might struggle with mental health, perhaps in the way we communicate. For example, in many instances, as men, we are more tactile and it may feel easier for us to express ourselves through just doing "hands-on work" or doing "hands-on activities" with one another that can help us open up about things.

I think society doesn't give us safe spaces for us to really share our weaknesses as men, generally speaking. Obviously, there are exceptions. There are great organisations and people out there and I've met many men who don't conform to the stereotype and who are open and do have the language and the confidence to express their emotions in a healthy way.

It's about coming against this alpha-male narrative in which men just need to compete and just need to have more and do more in order to be more, as that's not necessarily the case. So, I think that's what contributes to it and I think that's also what makes it hard to address men's mental health as well.

What advice would you give to students who may be struggling with their mental health at uni?

What I'm going to say is out of sympathy because I was fortunate enough to be living with my parents throughout University. I know with Covid-19 that you could see the massive disparity in terms of certain students still being at home versus students who are far from home. We could see the diverse impact that's had so I try and be sympathetic with students who are living independently and have to be a lot more proactive in managing their time and their finances etc. 

With that being said I would say to all students to think about your why. What's the why behind what you do? If you're studying a certain course what is driving you? Is it merely just having a good salary or job at the end of the degree? Because I know for me, especially with finishing my degree during Covid-19, just the prospect of having a good job at the end of my degree was not enough to motivate me.

I needed a deeper motivation and I was thinking about why I create in the first place, how I first fell in love with animation - which was what I did my degree in. So it's having a deeper why and knowing what impact you want to have on society through the subject that you're studying.

Even for me, graduating with all the different awards and different things that I've been part of, finding work has been a bit more challenging than I thought it would be but I'm using that as an opportunity to keep learning.

When you finish your degree that's not the end of you learning about yourself or the world around you, keep being open-minded and be ready to unlearn things as well as learn things. Just having that growth mindset, taking care of yourself by having breaks and remembering it's not a sprint can definitely help. 

Ideas for acknowledging International Men's Day at the University in future years?

I think having fun activities is good, it might be a sports tournament although because not all men are interested in sports you might have some other sorts of events going on, perhaps gaming socials or maybe just thinking about safe spaces and what constitutes a safe space.

Ask the young men at the University what they want. Ask them what a safe space is for them, for some of them it might be playing footy with their friends, for others, it might be just sitting in a room and having a transparent conversation about a topic. I think communicating with men about what they want and what is important to them is the first step. Just let young men's voices be heard within the University.

And I think collecting this data in a variety of ways is important you can have an online survey but also think about interesting things you can do in the atrium. It might be something like a rowing challenge or you could have a notice board where men can write what makes them happy or what is a safe space for them. It's about building that sense of community by not just collecting data online but doing it in person as well.

On the future of Mental Roots.

The vision now is just to continue making an impact digitally, I'm just starting to see the real-world impact of my digital content and I want to do more in-person engagements as well. I've started engaging with universities more, there's one University in the states where I was given a paid opportunity of doing a session with some of their art students.

I would love to do more workshops with other young people from various backgrounds so that they can be more aware of how they can use creativity and media to have a positive impact on society and address societal issues.

I'm trying to see who can help build Mental Roots from an entrepreneurial perspective, seeing how I can help other people reach their life goals and their life visions through them being involved with Mental Roots. I'm learning to take it one step at a time as obviously mental health is the focus so I need to take care of my mind in doing the brand work.

I've got lots of ideas for the next few Mental Roots animations but I'm taking a pause on that to focus on finding full-time work or any paid work and just taking time for myself. 

To find out more about Nathan and Mental Roots and/or to contact him for any freelance requests, job invitations, enquiries about his work or public engagements check out his animation or Mental Roots

About the author

Silhouette of a woman comprised of other animated women against a purple background.

Gender Equality Network (GEN)
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