Man Therapy brings effective digital mental health support to the population most likely to commit suicide, CDC study finds

Men-identifying Americans are four times more likely to die by suicide than women-identifying Americans. In the U.S., 78% of all suicides are committed by men ages 16-64 years.

"They're really struggling but they're struggling in silence, and it's below the surface," said Joe Conrad, an entrepreneur and digital health executive.

Conrad, the founder of Grit Digital Health, helped to launch Man Therapy in 2010, as an interactive mental health campaign targeting working-age men that employs humor to cut through stigma and tackle issues like depression. The website is designed to educate, reduce stigma and encourage men to seek help in times of crisis.

Ten years ago, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment wanted to find a new way to help men reject the “cowboy-up” approach to mental health. With billboards trumpeting that “You can’t fix your mental health with duct tape” and Dr. Rich Mahogany starring in mental health informational videos, the government saw men of working age seeking treatment for the first time.

Conrad said Man Therapy has expanded beyond itself, starting a movement in the population making up five out of seven suicides. Grit Digital Health is Man Therapy's parent company.

A recent study funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that the mental health program decreased depression and suicidal ideation in working-age men. 

“We had several stories of therapists say they had guys come into their office because they drove down the road and saw a billboard,” Conrad told Fierce Healthcare. “These men bypassed the Man Therapy website entirely. For the first time, somebody was putting out in the world a message saying, ‘Hey, it's OK. Taking care of your mental health is the manliest thing a guy can do.’”

The CDC-funded study released in November found that Man Therapy functioned as a significant entryway to therapy for men of working age, a group traditionally difficult to reach, the researchers reported. Not only does significant stigma exist for men seeking treatment but mental health outreach campaigns are less likely to focus on men, according to a review by the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.

International construction firm Hensel Phelps has now partnered with Man Therapy to launch a new mental health campaign.

In acknowledgment of the growing crisis, the American Psychological Association released its first set of guidelines for providers working with men and boys in 2018. 

Man Therapy provides a variety of resources including connections to therapists specializing in men’s mental health, educational videos and a “20-point head inspection.” The questionnaire assesses men before triaging them to the right mental health resource, including mental health hotlines and therapy and teletherapy providers.

The website has seen two million visits, half a million “head inspections” and 50,000 connections to mental health crisis lines.

When men do decide to commit suicide, they are also more likely to do so in a violent manner and be successful, pointing to the finding that men are less likely to seek out mental health support or express a “cry for help.”

“When men are really struggling they stuff it down, there's not a cry for help,” Conrad said. “When a man attempts suicide, unfortunately, they're successful the first time. And that's usually because they use lethal means to do so.”

In the state of Colorado, men with occupations as construction workers, agricultural workers or emergency responders are most likely to commit suicide. The state is one of the lowest in the country for mental health and the highest in gun ownership and mass shootings.

Suicide rates nationwide are most prevalent within Indigenous American populations, non-Hispanic white Americans and blue-collar workers. Man Therapy’s partnerships include tribal nations, fishing groups and veteran support organizations. 

Hensel Phelps’ new campaign with the company features Dr. Rich Mahogany, an amalgamation of Ron Swanson, Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor and Ron Burgundy. The character uses humor to disarm men who may hold a stigma related to mental health.

Conrad says a lot of women he speaks with who worry about the men in their lives point out that when conversations turn toward discussions of mental health, their fathers, husbands or brothers often deflect with humor.

“In a kind of ironic twist, we use that trick to get guys to let their guard down a little,” Conrad said. “They think it's relatable because it is humorous. At the same time, we turn the corner and we talk about pretty serious topics. We believe the two can coexist happily. That's the secret sauce to our campaign.”

Currently, Man Therapy is working on new offerings including a Spanish website and new content for Gen Z men entering the working world.

When looking at younger populations, Grit Digital Health pursued another different solution. Man Therapy focuses primarily on decreasing stigma and connecting men to online resources. "YOU at College" was designed for college-age students, focusing on adjustment to college, and is now present on 200 campuses across the country.