'It Saved My Life': 5 Initiatives Helping Men Open Up And Foster Friendships

These groups are spearheading change when it comes to men's mental health.

“I knew a lot of people, I was associated with a lot of people, but I didn’t specifically have friends,” says Mark Davies, 49, from Warrington.

Two years ago, feeling like he had no one to turn to, Davies attempted to take his own life. He had found out his dad was dying, and was told he was losing his sight and going deaf at the same time. “A lot culminated – and then my dad died and it was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he says.

Davies survived the attempt and, as part of his recovery, his wife desperately wanted to find support for him. She came across a mental health group on Facebook called Offload – a mental fitness and wellbeing project for men in their area. Davies joined two weeks later.

Mark Davies
Mark Davies

At Offload, men are invited to go behind the scenes of their rugby team and find out how players, coaches and referees stay mentally strong as well as physically fit. Over a 10-week course, Davies and a group of men met up at Warrington Wolves Rugby Club every Tuesday.

They spoke about work-life balance, mental health, stigma, resilience and mindfulness – “It’s taught me how to be a better dad, how to be a better husband, and how to keep my moods in check,” says Davies. “Along with Ian Smith, an ex Super League ref, Offload has saved my life.”

As the group helped so much, Davies has continued attending the club every week. The 49-year-old, who is now a charity worker, has never been comfortable opening up – but Offload (which is also run at Salford Red Devils and Widnes Vikings rugby clubs) helped him learn how to do it.

The course has blessed him with a core group of friends. “I know when I’m struggling I can reach out to the lads and say: ‘I’m having a bad day’,” he says. “Within five or 10 minutes, I’ll get 30 or 40 lads messaging, saying: ‘Look, you can do this.’ It’s all about supporting each other.”

Now, he says, his phone never stops. They have what they call the “3 o’clock wee club” – “everyone seems to get up at 3am, some of the lads will message ‘who’s up?’ because they can’t sleep. It runs all the time, that support.”

Earlier this year, a survey of men by YouGov revealed almost one in five admit to having no close friends, with almost a third saying they have no one they count as a “best friend”. A separate survey by Gillette, released to coincide with Movember, found nearly half of British men have felt like they’ve got no-one to open up to, and one in three feel like a “burden” sharing their own issues.

Positive encouragement from partners, family members and colleagues can be crucial in helping men find support, the survey found, with 40% saying kind words can encourage them to try something new.

Here are four other initiatives – all based at various locations across the UK – that, like Offload, aim to help men open up.

Andy’s Man Club

In the UK, suicide is the number one killer of men under the age of 45, with an average of 16 deaths per day. Andy’s Man Club is an initiative trying to help lower this figure. The group launched in 2016 after founder, Luke Ambler, lost his brother-in-law, Andy Roberts, to suicide.

Ambler and his family were devastated by the news. Not long after, Ambler, a professional rugby player, launched Andy’s Man Club – a safe space for men in crisis to open up to others in a similar situation. Their slogan? It’s okay to talk.

What started out as a local meet-up in Halifax has become a regular event in towns and cities across the UK including Leeds, Hartlepool, Stafford, Exeter, Bradford, Hull, Wakefield and Manchester. Local groups meet in specific locations on Monday evenings at 7pm.

Find out more here.

The Mankind Project

A similar initiative is The Mankind Project, which runs regular men’s meet-ups in around 55 locations across the UK and Ireland. Having started more than 35 years ago, the project’s aim is to encourage guys to “pursue their own life purpose” and “nurture their emotional wellbeing”. Sessions are usually free, but sometimes a small contribution to room hire may be requested.

The idea is simple: men come together regularly to hear and support each other. “Imagine a circle of men who absolutely tell you the whole truth about where you are strong, and where you sell yourself short,” the website states.

It also offers one-off, two-day workshops throughout the year. Men are required to contact the initiative using the form on the website – they will then be contacted and connected with a group close to them.

Find out more here.

UK’s Men’s Sheds Association

For those who are more hands on and wouldn’t feel comfortable in a men’s group, community men’s sheds are popping up all over the UK to help reduce loneliness and encourage friendship amongst all age groups.

Thanks to the UK Men’s Sheds Association, there are now 524 (and counting, there are over 100 sheds in development as we speak) community men’s sheds across the UK where guys go to meet new people, share skills and work on DIY projects in a community, rather than alone.

It’s estimated that 12,500 men have benefitted from the scheme directly. You can find a “shed” near you online – they’re scattered all across the UK.

The Lion’s Barber Collective

For those who can’t attend meet-ups, there are always those willing to lend an ear when you get your hair cut. Barbers up and down the country are going above and beyond to support men who might be struggling.

The Lion’s Barber Collective was set up by Torquay-based barber Tom Chapman after losing a friend to suicide. Chapman has since been on a mission to train other barbers to recognise symptoms of mental health problems in clients and signpost them to relevant support services. The idea is that barbers can offer that first bit of (often vital) support in times of need.

Chapman previously told HuffPost UK: “Clients already offload their thoughts and feelings without knowing it. As barbers we build up a relationship with clients, often knowing the whole family.

“They allow us into their personal space, we are allowed to touch their head and hair, there aren’t many people we allow that close to us. There is also that confidentiality between a barber and their client, we are friends yet often not in their social circles so people feel it is safe to share.”

You can find trained barbers in shops across the UK (and the world) on the map on collective’s website.

Find out more here.

Useful websites and helplines:

  • 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.)
  • The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: help@themix.org.uk
  • Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (open Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on www.rethink.org.