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An estimated one in eight men is diagnosed with a mental health problem, but many more are struggling on without the support. Research shows a third of people find it easier to explain the ‘offside rule’ than what mental health is.
This worrying gap in conversation is what led Bristol-based Rob Osman, 39, to set up Dudes & Dogs, a men’s walking group with a simple name and an even simpler, but effective, concept: to get men out in the fresh air for a walk and talk. Not forgetting to bring their dogs along, too, of course.
Osman had recently retrained as a psychologist, after working in the corporate world for 20 years in sales and management for medical devices. Discovering that dog walks helped him and his friends open up for more meaningful chats, Osman founded his new canine-aided mental health initiative.
Fresh air, animals and talking definitely sound like a winning combination and Osman’s rational was strong. In PDSA’s 2019 PAW report, 84% of pet owners said having a pet makes them mentally healthier. Meanwhile, health statistics showed only 36% of referrals to NHS talking therapies were male.
Putting two and two together led Osman to set up D&D’s first walk in 2019 through Bristol’s Leigh Woods – bringing Mali, his gorgeous Hungarian Viszla, along for the ride. There were just three dudes – and the dog – that day, but members soon reached as high as 30 men per free-to-join stroll.
“Dogs act as a pressure valve, it allows you a brief second out of that heavy moment to laugh,” explains Osman, who says they also make for a different environment, acting as a distraction for men talking about difficult subjects.
You don’t even need to own a dog to come along, but there’s always one there. Whether walkers want to talk about the big stuff, the small stuff, or the latest football news from the weekend, they can tag along and share at their own pace. As Osman says: “Blokes are really good at saying ‘How’s it going?’ and that’s it. But how is it really going?”
Each walk is led by a ‘Dog Dude’, men trained by Osman’s programme and paid to become mental health first aiders – a qualification equivalent to physical first aid training that equips you to recognise the signs and symptoms of common mental health issues and guide people towards the right support.
With many men struggling to get that support, the walks offer a casual opportunity for them to open up with others. “The biggest people who have touched my life are those who have empathised,” Osman explains. “As soon as you feel heard and listened to, even that can be medicine all by itself.”
Men might not always feel able to talk about their feelings, but when they hear other men doing so, it gives them permission to do the same, he adds. “It’s a real privilege to provide that space for people to open up and feel they can do so. We have a very clear mission statement, which is to show every man in every corner of the world that it is not only ok to talk, it’s vitally important.”
Osman sees Dudes & Dogs as a quicker, more active version of therapy. “The beauty of this group is that you can book online for the upcoming weekend.”
The simple act of walking is part of the process. As Hayley Jarvis, head of physical activity for the mental health charity Mind, explains: “Our physical and mental health are closely linked and there’s good evidence that doing more physical activity can have real benefits for our mental wellbeing.”
Whether you join a local sports group or just go for a walk with friends, “physical activity lifts your mood through the release of endorphins and helps you to manage stress better,” she says. It is also proven to help you sleep better, which of course is a key component to protecting your mental health.
Recent University of Essex research for Mind found that 94% of people said so-called ‘green exercise activities’ – in other words those conducted outdoors – had benefited their mental health. Joining a group or getting active with someone you know, a friend or family member say, makes taking that first step easier and helps motivate you to enjoy the activity more. Groups are also a great way to form new friendships, boost your self-esteem and reduce loneliness.
Only a few months after Osman set up Dudes & Dogs, the initiative was hit by the global pandemic. The government ban on meeting people from other households resulted in a temporary pause on the group walks – at a time when, arguably, they were needed most. And when lockdowns showed no signs of ending, Osman had to find another way of bringing everyone together.
Switching to an online community, the group hosted a range of activities from “virtual” walks and exercise classes to quiz nights, and even live music every Sunday. The Covid-19 pandemic only proved the need for this community.
Then, as lockdown eased, the dudes and their dogs were able to meet up IRL again. Following support from the local community and wider networks, the initiative has expanded beyond Bristol to eight other locations across the country, from Henley-on-Thames to Ystrad Mynach in Wales.
With nine current locations, two more opening next month and an aim to start international walks by the end of the year, the initiative is expanding to offer as many opportunities as possible to men across the country – and world.
The fear of being laughed at, judged or seen as soft is a hurdle men face when it comes to opening up and can deter them from sharing at all – but it doesn’t have to be that way.
As Osman emphasises: “I’ve never once spoken openly about my emotions and had anyone judged or mocked me, or made me less because of it. It’s a case of having that conversation, and as soon as you do, the world feels so much easier.”
Move celebrates exercise in all its forms, with accessible features encouraging you to add movement into your day – because it’s not just good for the body, but the mind, too. We get it: workouts can be a bit of a slog, but there are ways you can move more without dreading it. Whether you love hikes, bike rides, YouTube workouts or hula hoop routines, exercise should be something to enjoy.
Help and support:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).
- CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably) offer a helpline open 5pm-midnight, 365 days a year, on 0800 58 58 58, and a webchat service.
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
- Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0808 801 0525 (Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on rethink.org.