Courtesy Tim Meakins

In these strange and uncertain times, it’s more important than ever that we speak up about creative industry mental health issues in a clear, no-BS way. It’s a topic we’ve long covered at Eye on Design, and recently, we’ve noticed a growing number of mental health initiatives in the design world with a specific focus on masculinity. Stats around sex and mental heath indicate why: According to the Mental Health Foundation, in 2019 the most common cause of death for men aged 20 to 49 in the UK was suicide; a report by the charity Samaritans concluded that men are three times as likely to die by suicide than women; and in the US, since the 1950s, men have typically died from suicidal attempts three to five times more often than women.

Meanwhile, World Health Organization statistics show that men are more reluctant to disclose mental health problems to a friend or a loved one than women, suggesting that the reason we may hear less about mental health problems in men is not because they aren’t there, but because it’s not talked about. Yet women are more often diagnosed for depression than men “even when they present with identical symptoms,” as WHO states. 

Anxy 4, The Masculinity Issue, 2019

In December 2018, when Anxy magazine published an entire issue on masculinity, editor Indhira Rojas said in an interview that it felt crucial to talk about masculinity, not at the expense of femininity, but in addition to it. “What we learned from the Issue is that what we consider feminine or masculine is a complete social construct,” she said. “I felt sad to read how our construct of masculinity limits that expression and makes men feel ashamed of how they feel to the point of severe repression.” Last fall, designer Sam Judge echoed that sentiment in his book Disquiet: The Hidden Depths of Men, where he writes that “an outdated model of masculinity, the archaic mold men feel they need to fit, the all too damaging phrase ‘man up’ are just a few of the factors meaning men are less likely to vocalize their issues.”

Judge writes that he found catharsis in documenting his own experiences with mental health through words and images—it became a way of making sense of his own complex feelings. As others do the same, we’re watching how personal projects, branding work, and research initiatives are opening up a conversation around notions of masculinity and their effect on mental health—as well as how this shift will impact the creative workplace, where mental health is so often dealt with incorrectly, or not at all.

 

Breaking the silence: how visual communicators can help 

In September last year, graphic designer and 3D artist Tim Meakins’ work went on show in the exhibition Low Energy in Perth, Australia. It featured a seven-foot 3D printed sculpture of a body-building beefcake. Like many feminist works before it, the piece aimed to explore the notion of gender as a social construct, though here, it focused on men.

Meakins came to this theme after an injury cut short a career in basketball, leading him to a realization that his self-worth was closely tied to athletic achievement and career success. Like the body-builder, much of Meakins’ work plays with scale and ludicrous proportions, referencing notions of failure and struggles with body image that he, and many other men have faced. “I’ve found funniness in the performativity of that world I’d been conditioned in,” he says in an interview in the exhibition catalog.

Another example of using smart design to open conversations and make people feel less alone is Sounds of Saving, a nonprofit that focuses on the link between music and better mental health. Last September, to mark National Suicide Awareness Month, it launched a campaign created by the agency RedPeak (which also designed the organization’s branding) that dropped thousands of free vinyl records around public parks in New York City.  

While the organization doesn’t specifically target men, and it acknowledges that music is just one of many therapeutic approaches for dealing with mental health issues, focusing on music as a mode of expression could be helpful for those who find such issues harder to discuss. “Certainly one of the things the founders were hoping to achieve is reaching people who might be harder to access through traditional mental health routes like therapy,” says RedPeak strategist Janet Wlody. “It’s been shown that men can often be less comfortable talking about these issues.”

Men at work: how notions of masculinity affect creative workplace culture 

Last year, designer Veronia Mike launched Creative Confessions, a platform that aims to “highlight and normalize mental issues in the creative mind.” In a bid to create a more inclusive and sustainable creative industry, initiatives include requiring psychology and mental health lectures in art and design schools, as well as conducting research and providing resources for dealing with mental health in the workplace. 

Veronica Mike, Creative Confessions

While Mike says she looks to avoid conflating the usual (albeit intense) work stresses associated with the creative industries with mental health problems, she feels that the stats showing that creatives are more likely than those in other industries to develop mental health problems make a lot of sense. “[For creatives,] their job is based on their own thoughts, ideas, and emotions—and to have them constantly judged by others,” she says. 

Marta Knaś’s studio Unwind recently launched its project The Dictionary of Female Feelings, and comparing it to a previous project about men’s feelings, she found that men often said in face-to-face interviews that “masculinity is a confusing term for them.” Now that the balance of power is (thankfully) gradually shifting for the genders, she’s heard many men say “they find it hard to define their roles after so many centuries of limits that have been imposed on both men and women.”

“There’s a widespread lack of self love in the creative industries.”

Mike says that despite how common mental health issues are in the creative industry, a lack of information and conversation around those issues lead people to feel abnormal and alone. In the workshops she runs in offices and design schools to try to open up conversation and train employers in appropriately dealing with mental health, she notes that women are generally more engaged and more likely to speak up, whereas men tend to share less. “That’s 100% about culture,” she says. “This is a big problem that goes way beyond the idea that ‘men are less emotionally intelligent.’ They’re taught to keep their emotions inside.” She also suggests that traits usually associated with women—such as imposter syndrome—are evident across the board. “There’s a widespread lack of self love in the creative industries,” she says. “We want people to realize that how they think and feel is usually pretty normal, like beating yourself up over not getting the result you hoped. You have to be pretty tough to survive.”  

An openness to talking about mental health at work can also differ across countries, as both Mike and Devlin of RedPeak point out. “I think in general men have more difficulty not only expressing feelings, but asking for help when there is an issue,” says Devlin, who was born in the UK and worked in several agencies in London before moving to New York, where he’s noticed that “in general, men…are more open to expressing their feelings and asking for help.” However, Mike’s impression of the creative industry in the U.S. is that the culture can often be “bro-ish,” led by big personalities that can sometimes leave little room for others to get a word in edgewise. “It’s also a country where you tend to see more hierarchical structures than in Norway [her birthplace] where there are more shy people,” she says. “I’ve had a lot more conversations with men about how they constantly have to feel they need to ‘toughen up’.”

 

“Approaching careers creatively:” The benefits of neurodiversity for creatives

Andy J. Pizza is an illustrator working with clients including The New York Times, Nickelodeon, Amazon, and YouTube, and whose work was recently published in Studio Anorak’s Stories That Never Stand Still, a free-distribution book supported by the ADHD Foundation that explores the positive aspects of neurodiversity. While ADHD is defined as a behavioral rather than mental health disorder, the symptoms and behaviors associated with it can have damaging impact on people’s mental wellbeing: a person with ADHD is six times more likely to have another psychiatric or learning disorder than most other people, and it can contribute to a variety of health problems, including compulsive eating, substance abuse, anxiety, and low self-esteem. According to the Center for Disease Control, boys are three times more likely than girls to develop ADHD. 

While ADHD has a number of negative implications on those working in the creative industries—such as struggles with concentration, inattention, and impulsivity, or difficulties in completing set work or tasks—Pizza says one of the positives is a tendency towards a “tunnel vision” around things that those with the condition are super interested in. “That’s given me an advantage on people who I graduated with who packed it in after a year,” he says. He adds that the ADHD brain’s predisposition towards an ability to “jump from one unrelated thing to another”—known as  dissociative thinking—allows him to make connections other people wouldn’t, which is especially helpful for things like conceptual illustration. “I like to think about neurodiversity not just in terms of a creative career but also as a way of approaching careers creatively,” he says. “Being creative for a living means my entire life feeds into my ideas.”

“I like to think about neurodiversity not just in terms of a creative career but also as a way of approaching careers creatively.”

However, the main disadvantages—especially as a creative freelancer—are the fact that ADHD usually means “the parent part of the brain doesn’t work so well and the toddler part is in charge,” as Pizza puts it, meaning things like paperwork, email, and finances are often more difficult than for others. He’s employed an agent to deal with the business and administrative side of things. “I’ve done everything in my power to maximize the creative part,” he adds. “My whole theory on how to manage my ADHD was to position myself where everything I have to do are the same things I want to do, and that’s worked for the most part.”

Actions not words: What the creative industries can do better in the workplace

1. Remove gender stereotypes from the work you make: While we’re thankfully seeing more and more creatives tackling the relationship between gender and mental health, the work has to do the talking, too. This means shaking off the shackles of outdated expectations around gender roles—ensuring that visual identities and branding projects don’t serve to underscore such unhelpful stereotypes. Products “For Men” are no longer designated by cold, businesslike blue. Likewise, floral, pretty, whimsical pink palettes and scripty serif fonts no longer stand in as the default for women. Such stereotypes around aesthetic and gender are not only limiting and binary—they also stifle progress when it comes to changing public perception around what is and isn’t “permissible” for men and women. This could mean anything from how we’re expected to look in terms of what we wear and how we age; career opportunities; and showing or discussing emotions and mental health concerns.

2. Be considerate in office culture and with “agency traditions” around food:  In regard to men (and women) facing problems with body image and eating, many creative workplaces unwittingly have measures or “traditions” in place that can be damaging. With many agency cultures revolving around long hours, eating ‘al desco,’ and an ongoing (though diminishing) drinking culture, those heading up agencies should be vigilant and sensitive when it comes to ensuring people are encouraged to take proper lunch breaks and factor in time for self-care. Part of the treatment for many of those (men and women) with eating disorders initially involves sticking to a meal plan, usually set out as three small meals and three snacks each day, and in the early stages, these are adhered to by the letter to either ensure adequate calorie intake for those looking to gain weight, or to prevent purging behaviors in those with bulimic tendencies. As such, it’s vital that agencies provide adequate time for people to take snack and meal breaks and, in cases where studios schedule mandatory “studio lunches” or arrange client meetings over meals, gently make sure that those participating are comfortable with those scenarios, without drawing attention to them. Nosy folk enquiring as to what’s in your lunchbox are irritating to most people—but can be traumatizing and triggering for those in recovery from eating disorders.

3. Use your creativity for good: Designers like Meakins and Judge have found meaning in translating their personal struggles with mental health into art that can be experienced by others. It’s a practice that has the potential to both normalize the act of speaking out, and make others feel less alone. If an engrained social attitude that has taught men that it’s weak to appear vulnerable has led to men seeking mental health treatment less frequently, visual communicators can help shift the conversation simply by giving visibility to the issue.  The collaboration between RedPeak and Sounds of Saving, meanwhile, shows that designers can spread the message through less personal means as well. 

4. Encourage a judgment-free culture around discussing feelings: Many posit that the key difference with how mental health is treated for men in the workplace is part of the wider historical precedent that “boys don’t cry”—that talking about feelings is the domain of nattering women, not go-getting macho men clambering their way up the career ladder—and this outdated assumption needs to be challenged. 

5. Offer adequate training for leadership roles: Mike notes that one issue is that in creative agencies, those at the top are likely to have been creatives who’ve risen through the ranks, rather than those trained to lead and manage teams and people. “Many leaders in this industry have no background in management,” she says. “They know they have to deal with the issue of mental health right now, but they don’t know how to.” As such, proper training for leaders from mental health professionals should be undertaken by those in, or in line for, leadership and people management roles.