Issues of power and privilege are pervasive across all socio-political structures, with the mental health system far from exempt. Suicide is much more likely among men than women, particularly men from thirty to fifty from lower socio-economic groups. Evidence shows that black men are far more likely to be diagnosed with severe mental health problems and, perhaps more significantly, are more likely to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act, according to the charity Mind. The problematic discourse surrounding men and mental health is what South London based writer and model, Hélène Selam Kleih, works to challenge with her curated collaborative project HIM + HIS. Motivated by her own familial experiences with mental health and the sectioning of her twin brother, Kleih’s anthology curates 522 pages of creative expression from 120 contributors, who all respond to the loose brief of masculinity and mental health.
The organic process of accumulating material started with a network of friends, and travelled through word of mouth to amass a collection of poems, letters, illustrations, photography, interviews, short stories and screenplays. “I say submissions but they were more contributions,” Kleih tells me, “The people I was speaking to they were really people I just found on Instagram or I’d gone to an exhibition and noticed their work there and then it just developed.”
Despite the notable success of the project, including an exhibition at the Barbican sponsored by Calvin Klein, a spin-off event series and a potential feature documentary, Kleih reiterates the roots of the project. “I wanted something that was coming from the actual person, from people who were actually dealing with the issue rather than from media outlets where it wasn’t a representation that was completely authentic.”
Abdourahman Njie for HIM + HIS
HIM + HIS is an exploration of masculinity, with the title signifying the dichotomy between body and mind. Though the book embraces the complexities and nuances of mental health through both visual and written contributions, nowhere is it explicit about these intentions, instead allowing the freedom of interpretation and introspection on the subject of modern masculinity without external imposition.
Unlike when Kleih first had the idea for the project, conversations surrounding male mental health have now become more widely accepted and encouraged, challenging traditional stereotypes of masculinity. However, as is the case with all fashionable sociocultural topics, there is a fine balance between drawing attention to an issue and exploiting it for capitalist gain. Kleih explains, “For HIM + HIS I didn’t want it to be this whitewashed cookie cutter version of mental health. When you’re looking at masculinity it becomes very easy just to focus on white middle-class men going through a mid-life crisis and forget about the other intersections. Not only with race but also to do with socio-economic backgrounds as well.”
Iggy London, Boys Don’t Cry for HIM + HIS
Describing her decision to opt for a community-based collaborative approach to tackle what is often regarded as an intensely private, personal struggle, Kleih talks about treating the root before the rot, with the root coming from our community and social practices. In our conversation she uses the example of colonialism as a collective history and the way that trans-generational trauma informs mental health in the present day, which situates it also as an individual history; emphasising the importance of community when examining personal struggles. Coming from a mixed Eritrean and German background, Kleih points to racial profiling as one example of widespread social practices that can negatively impact an individual’s mental health, citing her brother’s own feelings of insecurity and inferiority as a result of this structural racism.
Hélène Selam Klieh for Dazed Beauty
Kleih suggests creativity as a form of prevention to treat issues before they become problems, facilitating both expression and discussion. “I don’t even really like to call them problems because it makes it into a negative thing when really it should just be neutral,” she tells me. “It shouldn’t ever be a comparison, developing trauma bonds and it being tit for tat. It should be about noticing similarities rather than differences and I think you see that when you create. You don’t focus on the individual pain you focus on this thing that has been created.”
In regards to her own role in the project, Kleih tells me, “I wouldn’t say I edited it as much as I curated it.” When it came to organising the contributions, Kleih reiterates, “HIM + HIS is an equal platform and an equal playing field. I have some friends who are famous writers or filmmakers and it’s about not positioning them before anyone else but about allowing them to coexist beside each other.”
“I was disappointed with the lack of representation, especially of women of colour. The language is very whitewashed and omitted and doesn’t take account of everyone’s history.”
Wanting to encourage freedom of expression liberated from rigid briefs or guidelines, Kleih set up her own publishing house, Prosperitee Press. Kleih recounts to me her experience working in publishing after finishing university, “I was disappointed with the lack of representation, especially of women of colour. The language is very whitewashed and omitted and doesn’t take account of everyone’s history.” Deciding to take matters into her own hands, Kleih explains, “I think it was also kind of the DIY attitude where you can do what you want when you want, without having to wait for the okay from anyone. It was really just dependent on me and my timeframe.”
As an offshoot of the original project, Kleih began hosting events in 2019 titled the HIM + HIS: Here sessions, creating a safe space where individuals can come to listen to speakers on different topics surrounding masculinity, as well as participate in creative workshops and interactive exhibitions. When asked if she would define her work as activism, Kleih contemplates the usefulness of the term. “I would say yes, just because of speaking to so many different people and being quite a public figure. But I would also say no because I think it should be something that everyone is, it shouldn’t be labelled. I find those terms still quite cringey because I don’t think at any level I am like an Angela Davis or Martin Luther King type person.”
Despite her humble impression, it is clear through HIM + HIS’s prominent success since its publication in 2018, that it is constructively addressing a conversation that is both personal and at the same time communal in its pervasiveness. By advocating for creativity as an outlet for those struggling, the project both challenges outdated discourse on the subject of masculinity as well as offering a new unconditional language that can be adopted by those who are struggling.