Two years after standing on Oxford Street asking complete strangers for hugs, poet Hussain Manawer is at it again, this time sharing an emotive video to raise awareness of the vast number of people impacted by suicide.
Earlier this year, the 27-year-old from Ilford stood blindfolded on the streets of Santa Monica, US, with a sign asking people to hug him if they had been affected by the issue. Within 10 minutes, dozens of people had embraced him.
“I spend a lot of time in America,” he says. “And the people of America go through a lot – they go through a hell of a lot.” His hope is that his poignant film will spark “disruptive yet sensitive” conversations this World Mental Health Day.
“We have to be that generation of change,” he says.
The video shows Manawer standing in two locations in Santa Monica. He has a blindfold around his eyes and a cardboard sign propped up on his legs that reads: “Supporting those affected by suicide. You are not alone. Free hugs!”
The accompanying music is a combination of vocals by Beautiful Thing, a poem the 27-year-old wrote himself and music by Colin Salmon. It makes for a very emotive watch.
Manawer, who received an honorary fellowship from Kings College London for his work in mental health and public sciences earlier this year, says that he was surprised by the sheer volume of people who came up to hug him – a stranger on the streets. He receives an impressive tally of 26 hugs in the video.
“When I watched it back I was like, wow, it’s so interesting,” he recalls. “So many people are so young and so many men as well – it was very moving.”
Every year 45,000 Americans die by suicide. It is the 10th leading cause of death in the US. Across the pond in the UK, there were approximately 5,821 deaths by suicide in 2017, equating to an average of 16 per day.
Manawer says his interest in raising awareness of mental illness stems mostly from living opposite a psychiatric hospital, but also from his own struggles.
“It’s very sad the way I see people treated, people who have been clinically diagnosed with mental health problems. They don’t get many visitors, people on the streets mistreat them and they’re vulnerable,” he says. “It upsets me. These are humans and we need to take care of each other.
“Also personal issues for myself, I’ve gone through a lot and I’m continually going through a lot – as I’m sure everyone else is – and I just think us humans really need to find ways to take care of ourselves before we can start thinking about things like the ocean and the planet.
“I can’t understand how we’re expecting people to care about other things when people don’t a) care about themselves and b) care about each other.”
It’s not the first time Manawer has participated in a video like this. Two years ago, he stood on the corner of London’s Oxford Street with a sign asking people to hug him if they had experienced, or were experiencing, anxiety or depression. Within 20 minutes, he had received hugs from around 50 people.
“I felt like so many of us suffer in silence and wanted to show to the world that people on the same road can be feeling similar things,” he says. “Just because we can’t see it, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t find ways to connect on it.”
When asked what he hopes to achieve with the video, he pauses.
“I’d like people to not feel like a burden if they’re having mental health issues,” he says. “I want them to understand a lot of people are going through it and there is support out there, we just have to be able to find it.”