Campaign Against Living Miserably

Simon Gunning, CEO of UK-based charity CALM, talks about breaking down cultural barriers, dissolving the stigma around mental health, and their mission to help guys in need.

Jamie Millar

As part of Harry’s on-going social mission, we’re shining a light on some of the charitable organizations we’ve partnered with to share stories from their CEOs on the importance of progress, and how they’re working to effect change in our communities every day.

The Campaign Against Living Miserably is an award-winning charity dedicated to preventing the 76% of suicides in the UK that are committed by men each year. But CEO Simon Gunning defines CALM as a “communications agency” first, a “commercial business” second and a “charity” last.

“The third sector behaves with the shackles of 200 years of charitable behaviour: shaking a tin, ‘I don’t want to disturb you but’,” explains Gunning. “I want CALM to talk in a language not traditionally associated with charity, that will be as loud and as impressive as anything else you care to mention, whether that’s Apple, Nike, YouTube or anything in between.”

Suki Dhanda
Simon GunningSuki Dhanda

Where other charities “don’t want to disturb you but”, CALM disrupts; instead of shaking a tin, it unapologetically shakes things up, borrowing magpie-like from popular culture and partnering with brands and broadcasters to speak to men from all walks of life in ways that they won’t or can’t ignore. And while several noble causes are honoured to receive the backing of Princes William and Harry, as CALM does, not many can claim rapper Professor Green – who made a powerful documentary about his father’s suicide – as a patron.

CALM was already doing a good job before Gunning joined just over a year ago. During the communication-agency-slash-charity’s decade-long existence, awareness of male suicide has trebled on the back of campaigns such as #mandictionary. In conjunction with creative agency Theobold Fox, CALM coined new words for uniquely masculine situations, behaviours and stereotypes. Some were rib-tickling, such as “manicure: a fully loaded fry-up the morning after a heavy night”. Others were hard-hitting, such as “mandown: one of the 12 men who take their life every day in this country”. Enough to make Gunning, who’d never previously worked for a charity, sit up and take notice.

“You go to bed at night and think, ‘What did I achieve today?'”

“It just seemed to be everywhere – it was beautifully executed piece of above-the-line comms,” says Gunning, slipping into fluent marketing-ese. Before he joined CALM, his 20-year CV spanned the record industry (“brilliant”); TV, or more specifically the digital services that accompany the programmes (“quite brilliant, slightly less”); and advertising (by implication, less brilliant still). “You go to bed at night and think, ‘What did I achieve today? I was in a meeting that might lead to another meeting that might mean that Audi might have a slightly better ad campaign at some point in the future,'” he says ruefully.

CALM’s output is more measurable. The direct beneficiary of the attention-grabbing campaigns and other activities is a helpline that takes almost 7,000 calls a month, many from men on the very edge. “As a result of that, we save about 1.4 lives a day,” says Gunning. “So, it’s a little bit different to thinking that maybe you might help sell another Audi.”

Despite the best efforts of CALM, the biggest killer of UK men under 45 remains themselves. Gunning points to unattainable ideals, waning relationships and the inherited worldview, particularly in stiff upper-lipped Britain, of men as strong, silent providers in a changing and, for many, challenging economic landscape. “So we’ve got this room for two hours, right?” he asks, casting his gaze around the light and airy rented office space in east London’s Shoreditch. “A UK man will kill himself in that time.”

Suki Dhanda
Simon GunningSuki Dhanda

Thankfully, Gunning sees solutions where there are problems. Like in advertising and media, which have in the past been “wholly and completely” responsible for bombarding men with unrealistic or downright toxic portrayals of masculinity. Yet ad agencies are among CALM’s closest and most effective allies: “They’re generally run by really bloody smart people who are socially aware and genuinely want to do things that are better, which is why we’ve managed to come out with campaigns like we have.”

One such was #changethepicture: together with media group Dentsu Aegis and digital marketing agency 360i, CALM exposed the negatives behind the carefully filtered social media shots of ripped physiques, sports cars and sunsets over infinity pools. “We found men who were prepared to admit, ‘This was a picture that I put out three days before I tried to kill myself,'” says Gunning. “Companies like Instagram see that and want to work with us.” He’s just come from a meeting with YouTube about equipping their channel owners to broach the sensitive if now less taboo subject of mental health.

“We save about 1.4 lives a day…”

Technology is frequently held up as a negative influence, eroding offline support networks and ironically making us less connected. But again, Gunning frames it as an opportunity to extend CALM’s reach. “Let’s look at programmatic advertising,” he says. “A computer with a long algorithm profiles the user based on things like location, device, websites visited, demographic, income. Why can’t we use that information to identify people who might need help instead? That’s rhetorical, because we can. We just choose not to.”

Or when someone searches on the internet for how to kill themselves, perhaps they might receive more sophisticated assistance than the pop-up from the venerable charity Samaritans that they get currently. “If we chucked a stick out of that window, we’d hit 14 chatbot companies,” says Gunning. “The artificial intelligence to understand the data from our call centre is there. What I want to do is start plugging it all together.”

Although CALM never asks for money, cash is critical for getting stuff done and hiring the best people to do it. Part of Gunning’s remit as CEO is to tap non-traditionally charitable revenue streams, such as commercial products and services: educating employers on how to better care for their workforce, for example. But while money talks, new recruits to CALM during Gunning’s tenure – all from the private sector – have been willing to put financial considerations, if not to the side, then lower down, jaded by “overpaid people talking to each other about things that will never happen”. “We do stuff,” says Gunning.

Suki Dhanda
Simon GunningSuki Dhanda

Stuff like the forthcoming Project 84, CALM’s second campaign with ad agency Adam & Eve/DDB, which Harry’s is supporting. For the first, they printed real suicide notes in newspapers (violating a cardinal rule of reporting) with the tag line: “If you find it hard to read, imagine how hard it was to write.” In fact, the authors had all survived thanks to CALM, which received £500,000 of free media, plus a month’s website traffic in a single day.

The next campaign features statues of 84 real suicide victims – that being the number of UK men who kill themselves each week – made by their family and friends, complete with their stories and even clothes. “It is, I think, the most profound thing I’ve seen from any ad agency, ever,” says Gunning, who is “99 per cent certain” that a major UK TV network will produce a special episode of one of its flagship morning shows dedicated to the project.

It’s not just big companies that can make a difference: every little bit helps, whether that’s running a marathon, a curry club or a DJ night. “Give us some money if you want, but you don’t have to,” insists Gunning. Talk is cheap but valuable, whether to your mates, on social media or CALM’s helpline: “You don’t have to be ready to die to ring it. We can help people.”

CALM’s key message to those thinking of taking their life is simple and to the point. “Stay,” says Gunning. “Just stay. See what happens. There’s that phrase: ‘suicide is permanent solution to a temporary problem.’ Now, obviously there are permanent problems. It’s your choice. We don’t have the right to tell you what to do. But if you stay, who knows?”

Join us in-person as CALM and Harry’s unveil ‘Project 84,’ a series of 84 spectral sculptures by artist Mark Jenkins installed atop ITV Studios on London’s South Bank.

Take a stand against male suicide by signing the Project 84 petition.