Last week we had the pleasure of sitting down with River Hawkins, an actor, director, producer, and the founder of Humen. Humen is a charitable incorporated organisation changing the face of what it means to be a man. They offer a preventative and non-clinical space for men to talk, listen and connect on a regular basis, The Humen Space.
Humen provides a preventative and actionable solution to men suffering in silence and dying too young so that every man has the opportunity to improve and maintain their mental health on a regular basis. They have also produced a series of short films that look at the struggles and challenges that men from all walks of life face in society. By valuing inner health as much as outer health and through this focus on human connection and humanity, Humen aims to create a better world for men and women.
Where did you come up with the idea for The Humen Space?
“So my own personal experience, starting from the beginning growing up a guy, the traditional way of being told by society, in every aspect, what being a man means. Which meant, you know, boys don’t cry and to suppress every emotion unless it’s anger.
That just led one way which was down and it led me to a breaking point and I didn’t know how to deal with it because the only way I was taught was, what it meant to be a man was to “deal with it yourself” and to not ask for help, and that clearly didn’t work.
I was post breaking point and I had completely run out of all options. Everything I had tried to do myself didn’t work so I eventually went to seek help through my doctor and I was offered to be put on a waitlist for talking therapy. During that wait time, I declined even more, and then when I finally got the sessions, it was just six sessions of talking therapy.
I said to them by the 5th session, “this is starting to help but what happens now we’re only scratching the surface? I need to continue.” and they said we can only continue to offer you these sessions if you are explicitly saying you’re suicidal and that really shocked me.
I had come to this point of asking for help and that because I’m not saying that I’m about to jump off of a bridge, that I can’t continue to receive this support. Someone described it in a really good way, it’s like unpacking all these boxes from the attic, pulling out all of this mess, and then being left to deal with it yourself. So in a way, I was sort of in a worse place than I was before because we had unearthed all this stuff and then was left to deal with it myself.
So basically that’s what made me realise that there is a huge gap in the way that we think about mental health and especially with men and the way we are conditioned and brought up. Why are we waiting for these people to be at breaking point or beyond before we start helping them, so in a weird way that gave me a determination to get better myself. But I knew a lot of people wouldn’t respond that way and obviously with the suicide rates and then doing research on the statistics around how people deal with these issues, from addiction to violence to obviously suicide.
It was clear that something needed to change which I felt wasn’t being addressed in the right way so that’s where the idea for Humen came from. To provide something to normalise the way we look after our mental health and to completely de-stigmatize it.”
Your mission is “Changing the face of what it means to be a man.” Can you tell us a bit more about what that means?
“Yeah so I touched on growing up and how we are conditioned in terms of boys don’t cry, told to “be a man” or “man up” and it’s kind of like, well what does that mean? Be a man, man up? It’s changing the face of what it means to be a man because at the end of the day we are all human beings and there are certain emotions which have been feminized but aren’t inherently feminine.
They have been considered feminine through socialisation, so things like empathy, compassion, and vulnerability. I talk about how these are all human emotions which all of us need just to survive, communicate, and connect as human beings so that’s what I really wanted to change in terms of changing the face of what it means to be a man and that’s why I called it Humen.”
Humen focuses on Men’s Mental Health but is it accessible for women too? For example, could I attend a session or is it strictly for men?
“So the spaces themselves are the core offering, the Humen Space, the gym for the mind and they are specifically for men because again down to the way that we are conditioned and meant to be seen as the person who is strong the person who is rightly or wrongly the provider and can’t show weakness.
I wanted to enable as much openness and sharing as possible and I think it was important to have this space amongst men so that they can feel that they can do that completely freely. So the Humen Space directly is for men but the name Humen, the definition of it which is on the website is, Collaborative human beings who value equality between men and women and are not limited by or to stereotypes.
So it’s supporting gender equality but the service itself is for men but as a result, as an outcome, they are improving their relationships, they are improving their lives and we all have men and women in our lives so it’s improving those relationships as well, with the women in their lives.”
How does it work? Can you run us through what to expect at a Humen Space session?
“So I wanted to make it completely non-prescriptive and non-clinical to make it as accessible and to destigmatize us looking after our mental health on a regular basis. So there is no set amount of sessions you have to attend or any rules like you can’t come back if you miss a session.
It’s every single week on the same day for one hour so you can build it into your routine. And we call it the Humen Space, the gym for your mind because we all understand the importance of us exercising on a regular basis to maintain our physical health, so we need to do the same to maintain our mental health and mental fitness.
It’s a one-hour session and it’s split into two parts, the first half we go around and its raised voice sharing, no one is ever forced to share ever, and you can just say whatever you want, whatever you need to get off your chest or whatever is going on for you at that moment and then the second half focuses on a different theme each week.
Helping to build that emotional education around things that you may have never spoken about or may have never come up or you were actively discouraged to talk about, whether that’s empathy, shame, fear it could even be a larger theme for the week like relationships. It’s really interesting just getting the different perspectives of what that means to different people which I hadn’t really thought about before. Just hearing all those perspectives makes you feel more connected and less alone. What’s amazing about it is someone could be sharing something which you relate to then, in turn, makes you feel that you can then open up and then you can do that for someone else with what you are saying and then they will go on and do that for another person and it’s this sort of amazing domino effect.
I also purposefully never wanted it to be a calling on people to share, it’s always if you want to because I think that is just as important, the listening aspect. You know there’s a lot of people out there saying “we just need to talk” and that’s true but we also need the space to listen and take the time to take things in. I never wanted people to feel like oh I’m coming up next and I have to curate what I’m going to say or put any pressure on them to feel as if they had to say anything. I wanted it to come to people naturally and I think that creates way more authenticity and I think it’s way more effective. So those are the two main parts then we close with a round of gratitude, we bring it back to the present and mention something we are grateful for in that moment or that day.”
Do you think that social media has made things worse for men?
“It’s interesting because when I set up Humen, I said how I wanted social media to be a part of it in a really honest way and not filter and not do all the things that social media has brought out where we are all showing the highlight reel of our lives and showing the behind the scenes. I wanted to talk about things that people don’t generally show on the social media side of things and also it’s interesting that some of the messages get in are from men commenting on other mental health sites and how they all seem to be from women or geared towards women and that they’ve never really been able to find many that are directed to or focused on men.
I actually have an example from someone who said “ a lot of mental health resources on social media are geared towards women and that makes a great deal of young men feel as though their feelings are invalid or worse that they don’t work with their masculinity” so I do think it has brought out the issue and exasperated the problem with worsening mental health.”
The Humen Space online has been a big hit since Covid-19 impacted the physical spaces, can you tell us a bit more about the reach Humen has managed to achieve during the lockdown?
“So when everything closed we were set to open 3 more physical spaces, then the pandemic hit. Due to the need, we quickly shifted to provide it online. A big part of the way I built the Humen Space is about the in-person human connection because in a way although we are more technically inept than ever, we are also more isolated and alone as a nation because you have this false feeling of connection through technology but we really need that in-person human connection, eye contact and physical energy you know?
You don’t get that physical energy when we are looking at each other on screens. But when the pandemic hit that was really the only way to continue it was either transitioning to online or not continuing during that time, and I knew we had to provide something so we adapted.
The silver lining was that we were able to access men in all countries all across the world and we ended up having men from India, Australia, South Africa, America, Bali, and people were coming in even though for some of them it was like 2 am. So it showed how much of a need there is, not only in the UK but across the world. People long for this connection and this feeling that they’re not alone, we have had over 2,000 attendees, and after the second session men were asking if this would continue after the physical spaces reopen.
We said absolutely because the other thing was we realised that it was a great first step for people who were maybe a bit more apprehensive about showing up in person so it gives them that option to explore Humen from the comfort of their own home and experience it before showing up in person.”
So you said before the lockdown you were looking to expand the physical spaces, can you tell us a little bit more about that?
“So the plan was always for the Humen Space to be the go-to place for men to look after their mental health on a regular basis and with that being able to provide it across the UK. So it was to have a location in every region in the UK so we’re back to that plan now that we are able to reopen. Actually, it has changed slightly, as we now want two in every region so that we have one in a major city and one in the highest area of deprivation. Because we talk about how the right to talk and look after our mental health should never be a privilege and people who are in certain areas and may be unable to get into the city shouldn’t lose out because of that.”
What would your advice be to men who are thinking about reaching out for help but don’t know how to make that first step or don’t want to be seen as vulnerable?
“This is again why I build the space in this way so that people can just turn up and listen; they don’t actually have to say anything. So I would say it’s just taking an action, that first step, just sitting there and listening. You aren’t obliged to do anything, so I’d say that the way the format is built really helps men to get through that first initial step, and then they can just build that up and will be able to share when they feel most comfortable.
Outside that I would also say, checking in with your friends, a lot of the time when you do that for someone else, if they tell you something, more often you then share what’s going on for you back. Or even if they don’t open up you could be the example for that person so I’d say that’s the other thing you could do, is doing that check in with other people because you are not only helping that person but also helping yourself doing it.”
You can find out more about Humen at www.wearehumen.org/ or watch The Humen Series on YouTube