‘They turn up in the rain’: the men who walk together for mental health

Suicide is the number one killer of men aged 46 and under in the UK. Men are starting to walk with their friends to combat the stigma surrounding poor mental health, and to offer support to those who are most vulnerable.

“A while back, after a traumatic incident, I realised that I was not coping, and needed to talk to someone,” recalls Dean Corney, a firefighter with the London Fire Brigade. “I went to work the next day, got the chaps together and said: ‘Look, I’m not coping, and need to talk.’ The response was immediate and positive, with others coming forward and admitting they also needed help coping with mental health problems.”

In response, Corney and his colleague, Mark Smith, decided to set up a men’s walking group in Beckenham Place Park, south-east London, open not just to firefighters but men from all walks of life. 

“We thought that it would just be the two of us, but 10 people turned up, and the group has since gone from strength to strength, with some men joining regularly and others dipping in and out, as they feel the need.”

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Corney states that the groups provide a safe space for men to come out and share their thoughts in a non-judgmental setting.

“Men often don’t want to show weakness in front of women or their families, and equally don’t want to come to confined spaces, such as a meeting in a village hall,” he says. “But walking in nature, in the fresh air is good for you in so many ways, and just being with other like-minded men, whether you want to talk or not, is helpful in itself.”

Similar groups are forming across the UK to target men and actively encourage them to walk and talk in nature.

The Proper Blokes ClubOne of them is Scott Johnson. It was founded by Scott Johnson, who began sharing videos of himself on Facebook as he walked around south-east London, talking about his struggles with anxiety. He urged other men to join him, saying “don’t suffer in silence, lads”. Weekly walking and talking meetups are now held in Southwark Greenwich, Woolwich, Wallington, and Woolwich.

Mental health is not a taboo in such groups. Participants are encouraged not to hide their problems or experiences, but to share them.

Men, especially, need to talk openly about their mental health. According to the SamaritansThe suicide rate for men in the UK is three times higher than that of women. Suicide is the leading cause for death among men under 46.

They know they can handle anything because they can talk about it during their weekly walk

Maxwell Ayamba, founder and leader of 100 Black Men Walk, says that while many white men can now walk and talk in their stride, it can be a challenge for black men. The group was initially formed to attract middle-aged black men to the Yorkshire countryside. But it is now open to all. Walk4Health.

“The only places where black middle aged men tend to share a common space are the barber’s shops, where they divulge their pent-up emotions and frustrations facing them daily. Mental health remains a taboo in these communities, something people are not prepared to talk about it and many have committed suicide.”

He adds: “Creating a space where people are not judged, but treated with kindness, love and respect has gone a long way to help our members.”

Walk4Health was created to encourage men from BAME backgrounds out in the natural world. Maxwell Ayamba

Corney, back in London, says that the walking group that he helped to launch is so popular that it has spawned offshoots. “We keep being approached about setting up new groups in other areas and now have five regular walks. People even turn up in torrential rain, proving just how necessary these groups are.” 

He adds that the groups have made a significant difference in the lives and well-being of participants. “Just in our small group, we have five people who were on long-term sick leave but have now returned to work. They say that the group walk is their ‘reset’ for the week, they know they can cope with anything, because they can talk about it during the weekly walk.”


Other places where men can connect

Men's mental health

The Lions Barbers Collective

A charity for suicide prevention and mental healthcare The Lions Barbers CollectiveBarbers are taught how to spot signs of poor mental health. Men are encouraged to talk about their problems.

Founded by Tom Chapman in 2015, the Lions Barbers’ shop on Carnaby Street in London takes full advantage of the famous smalltalk opportunities that arise when men are having their hair cut or enjoying a shave. 

Apart from talking about and possibly spotting mental issues, all profits are donated to suicide prevention and training more hair specialists in mental health support.

Image: Agustin Fernandez

Man Down

Man Down is a Cornwall-based non-profit Community Interest Company. It provides informal support groups for men with mental health issues. 

Fortnightly meetings are held across Cornwall in an effort to reach as many communities and communities as possible. Man DownThe Three Peaks challenge, weekend retreats and awareness raising events are all examples of the activities that are also organized.

Image: Aaron Blanco Tejedor

Men’s Sheds

This pioneering initiative brings men together — mostly in sheds — where they participate in activities such as woodwork, metalwork, repairing, car building, and more. 

The men share their skills, knowledge, and just chat to one another. Men’s ShedsMeeting up with others can help you overcome loneliness and isolation.

Image: Annie Gray
Main image: The Fire Fighters Charity