The life-saving power of a hashtag

Male suicide prevention campaign #ItsOkayNotToBeOkay should not just be dismissed as virtue signalling

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This summer, the #ItsOkayNotToBeOkay campaign raising awareness about male suicide has spread like wildfire across the internet. The initiative encourages men to post a selfie of themselves making the ‘okay’ sign and publicise the uncomfortable truth that suicide is the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45. Through these posts, the campaign seeks to raise awareness of the thousands of men who struggle with suicidal thoughts whilst feeling unable to seek help.

Does this campaign merely amount to virtue signalling? Critics argue that participants repost the #ItsOkayNotToBeOkay hashtag to show off how enlightened, progressive and open-minded they are without doing anything practical to support men suffering from mental health issues. In comparison, other anti-suicide initiatives encourage people to take a proactive role in suicide prevention for both friends and strangers. For instance, the Samaritans are running a campaign to encourage people to make small-talk with strangers who display worrying behaviour. As part of this campaign, the charity has published conversation starters suggestions in posters, train tickets and the like.

The impact of the #ItsOkayNotToBeOkay campaign is less obvious than other suicide prevention initiatives, but this should not diminish its importance. Granted, posting a selfie will not directly save many lives. Yet such criticism overlooks the unique power this campaign and others like it have to influence attitudes. Whilst charities such as the Samaritans and ItMatters empower people to reach out to individuals who are already battling with suicidal thoughts, the #ItsOkayNotToBeOkay campaign helps to build a culture in which men are less likely to develop such thoughts in the first place.

The pervasive perception that men should be stoical, encapsulated by the toxic saying “boys don’t cry”, contributes to an environment in which 41% of men who have contemplated suicide have felt unable to talk about their feelings, and thus unable to seek help. The #ItsOkayNotToBeOkay campaign reflects acceptance and openness between men and their friends, and thereby tackles the unhealthy pressure to keep quiet about mental health issues. Every selfie posted is a contribution to this shift in attitudes. By normalising discussion of mental illness, more men and boys can see that they are not alone. The campaign counteracts the unhealthy expectations placed on many, and via the viral campaign reaches a mass audience and can have a genuine impact on attitudes towards men and mental health.

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Due to the extent of its reach and the simplicity of its message, the #ItsOkayNotToBeOkay campaign can play an important role in reducing the rates of male suicide. The hashtag is memorable, the selfies are a striking symbol of the campaign, and the tagging of friends allows the message to become widespread. The result has been a wide-ranging uptake involving men young and old across Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

The fight to reduce male suicide needs to take several different avenues. Many charities recognise the importance of teaching people how to help others they suspect are struggling. Yet for these campaigns to be as effective as possible, attitudes towards mental illness amongst men need to be altered.

The #ItsOkayNotToBeOkay campaign contributes to the slow erosion of outdated attitudes by showing men that they are not alone and can find a sympathetic ear amongst their friends, knowledge which could certainly save lives. If a minority of the campaign’s participants are motivated by appearing open-minded to their friends and followers, that should in no way detract from the key success of this campaign; putting an important yet neglected issue on the agenda.

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