There’s a reason companies are afraid to talk about men’s mental health

We need to fight the stigma of men’s mental health.
We need to fight the stigma of men’s mental health.
Image: Reuters/Eric Thayer
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The statistics are staggering: For young men aged 15 to 24, suicide is the second-leading cause of death in the United States.

That means men commit suicide at a rate that’s 3.5 times higher than women. The rate is even higher among male Veterans and the LGBTQ community.

I co-founded the men’s care brand Harry’s with my long-time friend Jeff Raider in 2013. We’ve always given 1% of our sales to nonprofit organizations, but until very recently we hadn’t quite figured out how to evolve our social impact model, and where to focus our efforts. Mental health—and men’s mental health particularly—is a serious public health issue. More people worldwide die of suicide than war and violent crime combined. And yet it receives relatively little attention by way of corporate philanthropy. Given the stigma, I understand why.

There are a lot of reasons why statistically, men are less likely to learn about mental health, or seek treatment for themselves or for others. The social stigma that mires the conversation around men’s mental health applies to brands and corporations as well.

For many companies, social impact is an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone: Do good in the world, and rally behind a cause that makes their customers and employees feel good. By definition, mental health requires us to confront all manner of struggles. Mental health, or mental illness, rather, often causes people to feel badly.

We identified some main challenges in devising our social impact plan, which we hope can help more brands rally behind the cause:

First, the topic of mental health can feel dark, which makes it inherently less attractive for a brand to take on. Causes that desperately need attention, like mental health, sometimes don’t feel as good as other causes, which is why they’re often passed over.

It’s far easier to tell an inspiring brand story about investing in children’s education, or saving the environment than it is to talk about anxiety or depression. As brands, we’re incentivized to maximize for the brand, not for impact on a standalone basis.

So, when the idea to invest in men’s mental health was first brought to my attention, I hesitated.

Do we want to be a brand that’s associated with suicide?

Second, the issue of mental health is complicated and nuanced. It’s difficult to figure out where to focus investment to drive the most impact, and then how to measure that impact. Unlike tallying the total number of socks donated to homeless shelters, or meals served to the hungry, it’s challenging to objectively measure impact of mental health services. Is it the number of suicides prevented? The number of lives or communities improved? The number of relationships saved? Those figures are nearly impossible to track and measure, and there are lots of confounding variables that influence the results. How would we set goals and track progress? What proof points could we serve up as evidence of our effort?

Third, investing in men’s mental health necessarily means helping men—a group whose causes are, generally speaking, unpopular relative to other demographics. We tend to roll our eyes at the notion that men are in need or deserving of help, in large part because men do enjoy privilege— particularly straight, white men like me. Yet the data suggests that when it comes to mental health, men are one of the groups that is most in need of help.

Given the current zeitgeist, does this feel like the right cause to align ourselves with?

Lastly, if you take on a cause like mental health as a brand, you also have to walk the walk, internally. I’ve learned that being best-in-class when it comes to mental health is not as simple as offering flexible time off and meditation classes, though those things are certainly a step in the right direction.

A mental health road map

There’s no tried-and-true roadmap to cultivate a corporate environment where employees feel equally as comfortable calling out of work because they’re feeling depressed as they would if they had the flu.

Today at Harry’s, mental health isn’t treated with as much gravitas as physical health, though I hope one day it will be. Should we wait until we’ve made progress on this front in society, before taking on a cause like this?

For all of these reasons and more, deciding to focus on men’s mental health as a cause wasn’t easy. And there were certainly other less stigmatized, less complicated, and more sympathetic causes we could have focused on, with a clearer path to scale and measurability.

Ultimately, though, we couldn’t ignore what we believe is an epidemic. I’ve been a part of these conversations, and I’ve seen the headlines and the hard statistics.

The efforts of Harry’s alone won’t come close to solving the mental health crisis currently afflicting men. But I am heartened by the possibility that we can change the lives of half a million guys and their families and communities.

I hope that our decision to focus on men’s mental health, and to focus on direct impact—like revamping The Trevor Project’s volunteer training program or providing therapy to veterans and their families with Headstrongwill encourage other brands to do the same. I hope that it encourages individuals to not only seek out the help they need, but also inspires folks to take action by writing to their representatives to make access to life saving support easier. Every effort counts.

The topic of mental health is dark. It is complicated. And especially when it impacts men, it isn’t the most sympathetic cause. And that’s precisely why it needs our attention.