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8 August 2016updated 01 Jul 2021 12:13pm

What does the #ItsOkayToTalk hashtag reveal about Britain’s male suicide crisis?

Social media is often considered a catalyst for depression, but does it have the potential to help men address their mental health problems?

By Amelia Tait

Slacktivism is dead. No, the trend of snapping a selfie to raise awareness for a charitable cause isn’t over, but criticism of it is. Last week, news that the $100m raised by 2014’s Ice Bucket Challenge funded the breakthrough discovery of the NEK1 gene put many naysayers firmly in their place. Slacktivism is activism, and selfies are no longer mere vain attempts to change the world.

Which is why #ItsOkayToTalk seemingly couldn’t have come at a better time. Initiated by Luke Ambler, a 26-year-old rugby player from Halifax who recently lost his brother-in-law Andy to suicide, the hashtag sees men tweeting the “OK” symbol with their fingers in order to raise awareness of male suicide rates. “41 per cent of men who contemplated suicide felt they couldn’t talk about their feelings,” reads the text users are prompted to share with their selfie. “Let’s show men all across the world that #ITSOKAYTOTALK.” Users are then asked to tag five friends to also share a selfie and the text.

It’s hard to argue with anything that attempts to tackle the high – although thankfully decreasing – male suicide rates in Britain. If even one man reaches out for help after seeing the hashtag, it has been a success. But although it’s wrong to undermine the campaign as slacktivism, it is not wrong to question its limitations.

The Samaritans Suicide Statistics Report 2016 revealed that the highest suicide rate in the UK is for men aged 45-49, at 26.5 people per 100,000. Their “Men, Suicide, and Society” report emphasises that it is middle-aged men and those in the lowest social class who are suffering rising rates, while suicides among younger men reduced from 2004 to 2012. Only 12.7 per cent of Twitter users in 2015 were aged between 45 and 54, and only 22 per cent of male internet users are on Twitter. The message that #itsokaytotalk is barely reaching those who need it most.

“As far as I’m concerned it’s never a bad thing to try to encourage men to open up a bit more in the way this campaign has,” says Jack Urwin, the author of Man Up: Surviving Modern Masculinity. “But on the other hand, Twitter can be a bit of an echo chamber, and as we’ve seen in politics it’s not particularly representative of the real world. Consequently, I think some of the people who could really benefit from encouragement to talk a bit more are often not reached, and this is particularly true of older men.”

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Then there is another, more complicated issue. Whether from personal experience, numerous studies, or braying headlines, you’ve probably learned that social media and depression are linked. According to a recently published study from the University of Pittsburgh, the more time someone spends on social media, the more likely they are to be depressed. Although cause and effect are hard to identify in this case, other studies have found that receiving a low number of “Likes” or comments on social media can lead to depressive symptoms.  

Theoretically, a user tweeting #itsokaytotalk could end up more unhappy if, for example, their picture garnered no “Likes” or they were reminded that they didn’t have five friends to tag. But the bigger issue here is that social media can potentially cause mental health problems, and there is no evidence yet that it can cure them.

Perhaps #itsokaytotalk will change this. When Niantic developed Pokémon Go, they had no idea that thousands of people would claim it helped them to tackle their anxiety and depression. But although men have been reminded they’re allowed to talk, no one on the hashtag seems to be. The same copied and pasted message about suicide rates accompanying each selfie is great at raising awareness, but has none of the personal touch of someone opening up and encouraging others to do the same.

Ambler himself is aware of these issues. “Why encourage men to talk but then give them no platform to talk?” he asked on a crowdfunding page he has set up to raise money for #AndysManClub – weekly clubs where men can get together in real life to discuss anything that’s on their mind. Yet although the selfie campaign has been tweeted thousands of times and supported by celebrities such as comedian Ricky Gervais and actor Matthew Lewis, only £705 has been raised so far (at the time of writing).

In the world of online activism, going viral is often considered the endgame. But it is what happens next that will truly determine the success of the cause. Can talking online encourage talking in real life? Is talking itself enough? It remains to be seen whether the same social media that allegedly makes us depressed can tackle Britain’s mental health crisis.

“My only real fear about something like this is we sit back and become complacent after doing our bit for the hashtag rather than actively reaching out to those most in need,” says Urwin. “But like I said, anything that gets any man talking is good.”

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