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Interview: Wizdom Powell, Chief Purpose Officer, Headspace explores men’s mental health

We interviewed Wizdom Powell, Chief Purpose Officer, Headspace about poor male mental health, particularly among the black population.

As the Chief Purpose Officer at Headspace, Wizdom Powell’s role spans across the organisation’s diversity and inclusion, wellbeing and ESG domains.

Powell brings her expertise as a clinician, a racial trauma and healing justice scholar, and a health equity thought leader into her daily work. Through Headspace she is also helping shape a more inclusive and equitable society at large. 

To mark Movember 2023, we interviewed Powell about her research on the health disparities faced by African-American men and boys. Here she shares the impact of these disparities in the work sphere, and how we can foster healthy masculinity among younger generations to support a brighter future for all genders.

Your research expertise lies in the mental and physical health of African-American men and boys. What drove you to focus on this issue?

African-American men and boys possess tremendous potential for, and are making positive contributions to, innovation, competitiveness and progress. Yet, so much of this potential and contribution gets undercut by health disparities.

Recognising this truth and reflecting on the premature passing of my own maternal Grandfather, I wanted to do work that would prevent other families and communities from losing the men who matter to them.

I was also compelled by the oft-cited gender paradox in mental health. That is, more men die by suicide than women. Messages like ‘boys don’t cry’ social prescriptions men and boys confront when they find themselves standing at an emotional cliff.

 As a scientist and clinician, it was hard to imagine how we could thrive if we continued to haemorrhage the talent, skills, and ingenuity that African-American men possess. We cannot achieve better health overall if we leave a significant portion of our population behind.

We continue to observe troubling trends in men’s health that receive inadequate attention.

What findings are you most shocked by from your research over the years?

Research suggests a myriad of socioeconomic factors are at the root of rising rates of suicide in Black males, including experiences of racism, bias and discrimination –both in health care systems and in society.

Alarmingly, recent data show suicide attempts and deaths have been increasing disproportionately among black children and teens compared with their white peers.

But I am most shocked and saddened by the apathetic, structural response to this evidence. While we are making some progress, we continue to observe troubling trends in men’s health that receive inadequate attention.

Do employers need to adapt their approach to tackling issues such as stress, anxiety and other mental health issues to better support men? If so, how?

Employers need to be aware of how gender norms impact decisions to seek mental health support. Employees who internalise norms that encourage them to be “strong, stoic, and silent” may need additional nudges, reminders and engagement support.

During periods of burnout, they may also be more likely to try to push or soldier through creating a vicious cycle of diminished mental wellbeing.

Talking about stress, anxiety and other mental health for those men may require different messaging tactics. For example, reframing the decision to seek support for or talk about one’s mental health is the best way to demonstrate strength. 

There is no universal version of ‘healthy masculinity’ or shared cultural expectations about what it means to be a man. 

How is poor mental health among men at work harming women at work?

In our world, more men occupy leadership positions within corporate organisations. This means they are often setting the standards and pace of work.

When men in high positions experience mental health challenges, how they address them sends a strong message to women and other employees about what it means to be a ‘boss’.

A ‘command climate’ can encourage women and other employees to hide their mental health concerns and imply that doing so is the way to cement their pathway to upward mobility at work. 

A supportive and inclusive work environment where individuals can openly discuss mental health issues can help mitigate the negative impacts of poor mental health on women in the workplace. 

What does healthy masculinity look like in the workplace? 

It is important to note the plurality of masculinities. There is no universal version of ‘healthy masculinity’ or shared cultural expectations about what it means to be a man. 

Masculinities are not who men (or male-identifying humans) are, but rather what they do. Showing up at work in the world with a deepened capacity to flexibly express emotions, build intimate relationships, and seek help are all ways that men can ‘do’ masculinities in ways that promote their health and happiness – as well as that of others. 

We often treat men, particularly boys of colour, as if they are ‘problems to be solved rather than wonders to behold’.

How can we foster healthy masculinities among the younger generations?

To foster healthy masculinity among younger generations, we can:

  1. Promote positive role models who embody healthy masculinities and show diverse representation which challenges stereotypes 
  2. Implement educational programmes that teach children and young adults about respect, empathy, gender equality, consent, healthy relationships and boundaries
  3. Encourage emotional expression and end the ‘men don’t cry’ narrative
  4. Encourage healthy hobbies and activities that allow young boys and men to explore their interests and passions beyond traditional gender boundaries
  5. Create supportive communities where boys and young men can discuss their experiences, share their feelings, and receive support from peers and mentors
  6. Providing mental health support by teaching boys that they have access to a range of mental health resources and support

Imagine this hypothetical scenario. You begin a new role within an organisation with a large cohort of men, perhaps a traditionally male industry such as construction, and you are tasked with tackling the stigma associated with mental health. Where do you begin?

Knowing that you can be open with your mental health initially comes from having the self-esteem to be vulnerable. And often, we don’t know what we don’t know. So, I always start with building a shared critical consciousness about men, masculinities, and mental health.

You can accomplish this by offering training and resources that provide a foundation of knowledge about men’s mental health at work. Doing this is not a zero-sum game. When men and boys are healthier, the likelihood that women and girls can also be healthy at home, work and in society is significantly increased. 

Holding space for boys and men ultimately means creating a world where everyone feels cared for.

We have done a lot to build the self-esteem of black girls through positive racial and ethnic socialisation (#BlackGirlMagic). I would similarly create resources for boys to impact how they see themselves in the world.

We often treat men, particularly boys of colour, as if they are ‘problems to be solved rather than wonders to behold’. We can shift towards praising healthy masculinity in men without feeling as if we are feeding broader systems of patriarchy.

I would also re-examine our benefits messaging content and approach. We can get farther and faster with improving men’s mental health in the workplace if our benefits campaigns are tailored towards men (and other disproportionately impacted employee groups).

Holding space for boys and men ultimately means creating a world where everyone feels cared for.

Interested in this topic? Read HR’s role in men’s mental health.

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