Happy Sad Man may be the most important film you’ll see this year.
Director Genevieve Bailey turns the camera on five men and shows us who they are behind their smiling faces. These are men who look outwardly ok, like they’re living happy lives, and to the passing eye they seem to have nothing ‘wrong’. But, these men have their own hidden illnesses.
Take Grant for example, a cheerful guy, the kind you’d find at a pub having a few beers with his mates, sharing a bunch of laughs and stories. But, as Grant found out, he has a mental illness that wilfully comes along and disrupts his life. One day, he walked into his stable job dressed up as a Mexican and resigned, then, later, he gate-crashed a major surfing event. Grant ended up in a psychiatric ward, and with a diagnosis, he was able to find his path to living with a mental illness. He now runs a major charity, One Wave, and instigated a global movement called Fluoro Friday.
Grant is joined by the musically inclined John, war photographer Jake, luminous artist David, and farmer Ivan, all of whom share their personal stories about living with mental illness, and their perspective on how men are raised and encouraged to deal with and talk about mental illness.
Look, this isn’t going to be a traditional review. In fact, I feel I’ve said enough about Happy Sad Man. I cannot think of a documentary from this year that is as essential as this one. You need to see this film, and you need to have a discussion about mental health.
The fact is that in Australia, suicide is the leading cause of death in men between the age of 15-44. Between 2016 and 2017, the number of suicides increased by 9%. There is an average of eight suicides a day, and of the 3,128 people who took their lives in 2016, 75% of them were men. Happy Sad Man is not a film predominantly focused around suicide, but it is part of the discussion about mental health, and it’s the subject that many don’t want to even talk about. One of the most useful websites for mental health discussions and guidance, SANE, has an article about the myths about suicide, and it’s well worth reading.
While there has been a wealth of discussion and awareness campaigns about talking about mental health, we still have a long way to go as a society to make talking about mental health feel ok.
So, with the strength of this documentary behind me, I’m going to make that change myself and be more open about my own struggles with mental illness. I’ve been a champion of Movember for eight years now, and while I’m eager to encourage others to talk about their own mental illnesses, I haven’t been as vocal as I could be about my own. After all, shouldn’t you be the change you want to see occur?
I live with depression and anxiety. I have attempted suicide twice. I am grateful that I am still here, even if I don’t know how I am. I am socially anxious and have frequent panic attacks. While these elements are part of me, it’s not the entirety of who I am.
I’m simply just Andrew. That’s it.
This is possibly why I, and many others with mental illnesses, don’t wish to talk about their mental illness. They don’t want to be defined by their depression, their anxiety, their bipolar disorder, their PTSD. Once someone is vocal about their journey with mental illness, there is often a feeling that people need to wrap them up in bubble wrap and protect them like they’re a fragile egg. That’s far from the case. We know that this is a lifelong journey that we will be on, so we request that you don’t try and ‘fix’ us, and instead, we simply want to be treated with empathy and compassion.
It’s with this in mind that Happy Sad Man becomes a true blessing. It reminds everyone that your ‘external’ self is not always who you are. A visibly happy person may be happy, but they also may carry the weight of the world on their shoulders and just do not show it. This is as much a film about mental illness as it is about smashing the concept that everyone is ok. It’s about realising the complexities of life that we all live with, about the need to be there for those who cannot support themselves.
One of the issues I have with days like R U OK? day is how it makes ‘checking in’ on people who have a mental illness tokenistic. Days like that make it feel like as long as you check in on someone once a year, then that’s enough. Go get your gold star and cookie and carry on with your life. Happy Sad Man encourages those who can to be better at helping. It gives people some of the tools to help them feel more available. For many of us who live with a mental illness, we simply do not want to put that pressure or weight onto anyone else, so we don’t vocalise when we need help or are in trouble.
It’s not an easy thing to ask, and it’s certainly not an easy thing to expect of someone, but discussions about support networks tend to put the reliance on the person who is suffering to create that support network themselves. Why aren’t the people who are the support network stepping up and recognising when someone isn’t well? Happy Sad Man suggests that we all need to lift our game, to be a better friend, family member, partner, or colleague, and to be aware of the signs when someone is struggling with the weight of their mental illness.
That means being a more available person. It means creating the feeling that you are someone that is available to carry some of the weight of anothers mental illness. It means being someone who is approachable and available to talk to. To be clear, this doesn’t apply to everyone. But, if you have the fortitude and ability to support those you care for who have a mental illness, then please do so.
Again, while there has been an increasing awareness about mental health, there is still a lot that needs to change about the way that men are able to talk about their own mental struggles. David makes one of the most relevant comments I’ve ever heard about masculinity and the difficulties of being a ‘man’:
When I think of masculinity, I often think about a weight of having to be a particular way. I don’t know if it gives you the freedom to be yourself.
We need to be more accepting of how different men are. To give perspective, I am a bearded, tattooed man, and with those tattoos and the beard comes a social understanding of what kind of ‘man’ that I am – tough, rough, agro – and that social understanding is as far away as possible from who I truly am. For the longest time I felt like I needed to be a certain way, that I needed to be more masculine, more of a brute, tougher and stronger. But that’s not who I am. Finally, at thirty five years old, I feel ok being who I am.
It shouldn’t have taken this long, but it has, and I’m comfortable with me. I want to say I did that with a strong support network, but that’s not the truth. I did this by myself. I didn’t have a strong support network, I didn’t have someone I felt I could go talk to. I just had me. And gosh, that’s one heck of an incline to try and overcome. I’m slowly making my way up there, but I really hope that with films like Happy Sad Man that people realise the importance of support and being there for those in need.
I want to stress, this is a film that deals with a serious subject, but the brilliance of Genevieve’s direction is in the way she sits with the joy and happiness that these five men have in their lives, and by doing so she allows us to reflect on their own struggles. These are expressive men, and that expressiveness helps make the subject of mental illness easier to explore. All I ask is that for those who watch this film, ask yourself about how the quiet people in your life are going. They may be quietly struggling, hoping for help and not knowing how to ask for it.
I wish there were more films out there that encourage openness and made it feel ok to be raw. This may not be a perfect film, but that’s not its intention. It’s like a welcome hand being held out to everyone in need and saying, it’s ok, it’s going to be fine.
This is a film about learning, about understanding, about finding a way forward as a society to help those in need. I’m working on being more open about my mental health, and I do so in the hope that it might inspire someone else to be open about their mental health.
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