OPINION13 December 2022

Unpacking the emotional rucksack: Tips for researching men’s mental health

Opinion Trends UK

From building trust to using familiar contexts, Odette Schwartz outlines nine tips for researchers looking to explore men’s mental health. 

Young men millennials_crop

Researching sensitive topics like mental health requires extra thought and care. We won’t know everything that’s going on in people’s lives and they might not have the tools for these conversations. It’s up to us to keep participants safe.

Mens mental health is close to our hearts at The Good Side. We’ve been working with Movember since before the pandemic, using insight to develop media and cultural change strategies that tackle harmful social norms. Here are nine things we have learned from our men’s mental health research.

1. The house analogy

When you visit someone’s home for the first time, you dont run upstairs and rummage through their bedroom drawers. Its the same with approaching conversations around mental health. The first interaction sets the tone, so start in the hallway with light and unobtrusive interactions. Go deeper as you venture further into their house.

2. Trust isnt built in a day

Cultivate trusting relationships, so men feel comfortable being open. We know from our work that being vulnerable is not easy for most men.

  • Build trust and rapport early on. Don’t ask participants to do something you would not do
  • Demonstrate the behaviours you hope to see by modelling openness. In our work exploring the impact of Covid on mens lives, we included videos of moderators talking about how the pandemic was shaping theirs.

3. At first, its easier to project than reflect

Self-reflection is difficult – especially if you’re not used to it. Projection tasks where individuals think conceptually, rather than introspectively, help ease them into flexing their reflective muscles. It’s often easier to talk about someone else – ask about their friends experiences to introduce the language of emotions.

4. There are limits to your expertise

Know how far you can and should help. Weve been doing this for years, but by no means are we mental health professionals.

  • Consider how deep in their emotions you need to get for the purposes of the research, even if it’s interesting
  • After they've unpacked their metaphorical emotional rucksack they may feel distressed or uncomfortable. You have a duty of care to provide access to information and resources where participants can receive additional and confidential support.

5. Meet them where they are comfortable

Find familiar environments for getting deep. Reach men through the platforms they are comfortable in, like Whatsapp, so they feel at ease in a familiar context.

6. Give people the language to talk about their feelings

Exploring mental health topics is taxing when people aren’t used to it. Its like an emotional writers block; men especially often dont have the words to express their feelings, and risk disengaging altogether.

  • Structure research so men don’t have to start from scratch. Tasks like fill in the blanksprovide the language for new ways of communicating
  • Validated scales and experts can provide the language and lenses to supplement findings.

7. Moderators of all genders are valuable

It might seem intuitive to have male moderators when talking about mental health with men, but that’s not always the case. Seeing a male moderator lead by example can indeed normalise emotional expression. However, men can also feel more able to open up to women. They feel less judged and there is less stigma around women emotionally expressing. Have both options available so you can flip the script to see which works best with an individual.

8. The need for social proof

Dont restrict your interactions to the perceived safety of one-to-one interactions. Group discussions, between participants, can be meaningful and transformative. Men tell us how valuable its been to talk deeply in a community of men. Seeing other men being vulnerable frees them to do the same – with tangible positive mental health outcomes.

Successful social norm change happens when we bring taboo conversations out into the open. One of the biggest hurdles is getting men to believe other men feel the way they do. By practising talking to other men about their mental health, in a safe and supportive environment, the behaviour is normalised and men gain confidence in opening up.

9. Its more than the incentive

One of our core goals is ensuring participants get more than just an incentive and creating an enriching experience leads to better quality outputs for everyone. Create a moment for participants to provide feedback so you can fine-tune your approach and improve both the research and their experience.

The rewards of opening up emotionally

Like most people, we have been personally touched by stories of men who struggle to cope when times are tough. Through our work with Movember, weve heard unforgettable stories of hardship and resilience, and each has made a lasting impact on us. We’ve found these tools useful for our research, and for cultivating better conversations about mental health at home.

Odette Schwartz is a senior researcher at The Good Side