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Transforming the Narrative on Fatherhood and Mental Health

Will and his children Source: authors own photo

I’m William Nicholson, a dad of 3 and an activist for social and systems change. I’m passionate about supporting health and wellbeing through positive storytelling and I’m a keen advocate for men’s mental health, and fatherhood in particular.

Today is International Men’s Day in the UK. Its key aim is promoting a positive conversation about men, manhood, and masculinity and there are many brilliant initiatives across the UK doing just this. One of those is the recent Inspire the Mind series of blogs on fathers’ mental health, which has been incredibly refreshing to read.

For a long time, fatherhood, and men’s mental health in general, have been low on the agenda, largely swept under the carpet while a culture of ‘toxic masculinity’ has permeated our society. Men talking about mental health is seen as a sign of weakness. We’ve dealt with issues with the traditional ‘stiff upper lip’, getting on with it. When it comes to parenting, we rarely hear about the Dad’s perspective.

Recently there has been a positive step change. I feel men’s mental health has become a ‘thing’ we are happy to talk about. It is much more on the public consciousness with high-profile campaigns such as Heads Together supported by Prince William, who has talked openly about the importance of fatherhood and mental health. There are increasing numbers of celebrities sharing their stories from cricketer Ben Stokes to actor Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. The Mental Forge, in partnership with NHS England, recently brought together over 400 organisations at ‘MENtalHealth’, a webinar exploring the potential for collaboration to support men’s mental health.

Collectively, this movement has disrupted the status quo and begun to change the narrative on men’s mental health. However, I feel we need to do more.

The International Futures Forum’s Three Horizons Model provides a helpful framework to support the achievement of transformative social change. It distinguishes between disruptive innovation, which challenges the status quo and builds the case for change, and transformative innovation, which creates a whole new vision of what the world could be.

I believe this Inspire the Mind series stands out as being transformative. Why? The answer for me lies in the depth of the discussion and many layers of narrative change:

Positive storytelling about fatherhood

It is hard to find positive stories on fatherhood that provide you with insight into how to be a good dad and help dads to understand and manage our mental health. If you search the fatherhood book charts, you’ll come across books along the lines of “The Dad Survival Guide”, “Strong Fathers Strong Daughters” “Commando Elite Dad” or “The Dad Joke book!”. The language in these titles tells you everything about the current narrative on fatherhood! It reinforces the culture of ‘toxic masculinity’, creating an expectation that fathers need to be tough and strong or to joke about it to survive.

This image from a fatherhood book chart says a thousand words:

What’s wonderful about the Inspire the Mind series is that it creates a new narrative. It presents genuine lived-experience pieces from fathers who contributed to DAD who speak openly and honestly about their fatherhood experiences — not about winning or being elite but about vulnerability and the challenges they have faced — and it shows that this is normal.

Blending science AND lived experience

I’ve been inspired and moved by each of the fathers’ stories. As a Dad, I empathise with the raw human emotion each man has expressed. I haven’t directly experienced their issues, but I can connect with them as fathers who have gone through challenges in life. I am incredibly grateful for their honesty and their courage to talk so openly about their experiences.

I’ve also found each of the related scientific pieces enlightening. Having read the ‘real life’ story, it was fascinating learning about the science behind the feelings that each dad was describing. I’ve learned much more about each topic and how the human mind and body operate. Each time I read the scientific explanation there was an ‘ah ha’ moment — “That makes sense doesn’t it!?”.

Normally we are only given one perspective, one side of the story — The science OR the lived experience. There is a greater depth to this series because it does both.

Ordinary men telling extraordinary stories

Much of the current narrative on fatherhood and mental health is dominated by celebrities and high-profile men. What makes this series special is that it is ordinary men who have been given the opportunity to tell their stories in their raw and authentic voices without judgment or hierarchy.

This ensures underrepresented voices, ordinary people whose stories often go unheard, are listened to and part of the mainstream conversation. Elliott Rae, the curator of DAD, sums it up perfectly…

“These are ordinary men, being extraordinary by sharing their story with the world”.

The writers from Dad. Source: Elliot Rae

Equality and Diversity

The series presents a diverse range of blogs from contributors representing all aspects of race, class, age, sexuality and professional background. This gives the reader choice, to engage in the discussion on fatherhood and mental health from many different perspectives at the same time.

Each contributor is equally valued. In a world where deep-rooted social and racial inequalities have an enormous effect on mental health, there is a powerful underlying statement of equality throughout the series that changes the narrative.

Individual stories as part of a collective

What is refreshing about this series is that it enables each contributor to describe their individual story AND also communicates an interconnectedness between them — that they are part of something bigger.

Not only is this changing the narrative through individual stories, but it also transforms the narrative through the collective. In a world where isolation is prevalent and where we are increasingly disconnected from our neighbours and communities, this is hugely powerful.

Transforming the narrative through partnership

The story of how this series has been brought together is as important as the individual stories within it.

On the surface, the two initiatives and their founders appear very different. Carmine is a white psychiatrist who founded Inspire the Mind to increase awareness of the clinical and scientific aspects of mental health. Elliott is a black civil servant turned social entrepreneur who founded Music Football Fatherhood to provide greater opportunities for men to connect and share stories of fatherhood to support one another.

However, both initiatives and their inspirational founders share the same vision, approach and values. Both are collaborative, creative humans, passionate about changing the world and full of energy and positivity. As this series shows, they share a depth to their work.

In the current world, disruptive initiatives like Inspire the Mind and Music Football Fatherhood often exist in splendid isolation. Dad Matters UK, a mental health peer support charity for Dad’s, sums this up beautifully:

“Working in Men’s mental health is like travelling on a motorway… there are many great organisations and services travelling alongside us, each in their own lane, but ultimately heading in the same direction.”

The trouble is, most of us are unaware of the different lanes or that there is even a motorway…

What sets this series aside as transformative, is that they have found a way to come together and combine their experiences and expertise. Through this, they have begun to create a whole new system and culture — and transform the narrative on fatherhood and mental health.


Editor's Note:

The team at Inspire the Mind would like to thank all of those who contributed to bringing this special 10-part series, that has explored aspects of modern-day fatherhood, men’s mental health, and the science behind it, to publication. Especially to the Dad’s who so openly and courageously shared their stories.


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