BBC3’s Happy Man: exploring different avenues in male mental health

Comedian Jack Rooke seeks out alternative measures for improving our wellbeing in the new short-form doc

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Twenty-three-year-old comedian Jack Rooke has built a career out of talking about difficult subjects.

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His award-winning first stand-up show, Good Grief, directly touches upon his emotional state in the wake of the death of his father, who passed away when Jack was just 15. At 18, he became an ambassador for CALM, a charity dedicated to preventing male suicide, and now he is taking his campaign for a greater understanding of the variety of mental health issues plaguing young men to the small screen.

Rooke’s new documentary Happy Man, on BBC3, tracks his journey as he explores alternative routes to happiness, from breaking down body image issues by posing in a life-drawing class to relieving anxiety with a dip in a freezing loch in Scotland. It’s dedicated to his friend Olly, who took his own life in 2015 after a longstanding battle with depression.

The result is a sweet, insightful show that stands to Rooke’s ambition of spreading awareness. It comes as part of the BBC’s initiative to ramp up its mental health programming across various platforms in 2017. Given that young men account for almost three quarters of all suicides in the UK at the moment, this feels incredibly timely.

RadioTimes.com spoke to Rooke about his ambitions for the series, his best and worst moments and comedy as therapy.

What was your favourite experience while filming the show? Something tells me it wasn’t the cold water swimming…

That was the worst thing I’ve ever done in my life. I had norovirus, which probably isn’t the best time to go cold water swimming. It was the only time on the shoot that I fully broke down crying. I was like, “I’ve got the shits, I’m sick, I’ve gotta get in a loch, there’s a storm…” But I tried my best.

So… something else?

I really loved going to the community barbershop [a local initiative in Camden, in which men are encouraged to open discussion about mental wellbeing in a relaxed environment]. The administrative side of seeking help can often put people off, especially in the current climate. I think that these mental health-trained barbers, who are specifically there to deal with a cultural stigma in black and Asian communities towards mental health, are really brilliant. It’s an informal, accessible way of seeking that preliminary stage of support without there being a GP or a clinical type environment involved.

What were your aims at the outset?

I wanted the doc to show the wide spectrum of mental health and wellbeing. So much of the current conversation about mental health in the media is all about anxiety and depression. I’m almost a bit bored about hearing about anxiety and depression – mental health is so much more than those two things. I wanted to look into things like loneliness and isolation and how that is increasing in young people, and sexual abuse. There is a cultural stigma attached to certain mental health issues.

What kind of feedback have you had from viewers?

My favourite response has been from young gay men who don’t fit the stereotypical, short haircut, six pack, ‘go down the gym’ type that is so conditioned into us. And they’ve loved it, particularly episode 3, when I speak about body image and sexuality and the fact that gay mainstream culture is obsessed with fitness and muscles and masculinity and portraying that sort of gay cultural stereotype. 

I think, unfortunately, the media hasn’t caught up to that yet. There is never a fat gay person on tv talking that isn’t just being mocked or playing the clown.

That group of boys are so overlooked culturally, and they were sort of patting me on the back for doing it, which was quite sweet, really.

What kind of role can comedy play in spreading awareness about mental health issues?

Comedy enables me to break down that awkward barrier that people have with talking about these subjects. In some parts of the country, the stigma of mental illness and the stigma of talking about those issues that are slightly more personal is a really difficult thing.

It is hard to speak to someone and say ‘my close friend killed himself’. It’s quite an odd, awkward topic to broach. But, I think using comedy and humour to broach that topic has worked for me. The loveliest thing is that I’ve kind of earned the audience’s respect to talk about these things and that they are willing to listen and to learn and to actively seek those solutions out themselves.

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Happy Man is streaming on BBC iPlayer and YouTube now