The Man Cave's Hunter Johnson is stopping toxic masculinity before it starts

When Prince Harry and Meghan Markle swept through Melbourne in October, there was one man they insisted on meeting: Hunter Johnson, the 27-year-old co-founder and CEO of positive masculinity advocates, the Man Cave. "Well, that was actually the second time we've caught up," Johnson tells me, laughing. "We're old mates."

The first meeting came earlier this year after Johnson was named one of the Queen's Young Leaders, a Commonwealth-wide initiative that honours young people doing extraordinary work in their communities. One of 60 people chosen to receive the honour, Johnson was invited to Buckingham Palace, where he discovered Harry and Meghan had taken a particular interest in his work. "Meghan came up to me and said, "Hunter, oh my god. I wish the Man Cave was around when I was young. I know so many men who really needed this." To have that sort of recognition, it just really reinforced the importance of what we're doing."

When it comes to contemporary Australian masculinity, the statistics are damning. One in five Australian men will experience depression before the age of 18, while suicide is the leading cause of death for all men under 25. The opposite sex also suffers for our troubles: 20 per cent of all women say they have experienced sexual violence, while every week a woman is murdered by her partner or ex-partner. Collectively, male domestic violence and mental health issues cost the Australian economy $50 billion each year.

The Man Cave describes itself as a preventative men's mental health service. Rather than trying to treat the effects of toxic masculinity when they appear, it aims to catch it at its origin: in the tumultuous years where boyhood gives way to manhood. Johnson started the project in 2014 with two friends, Benson Saulo and Jamin Heppell, as a response to issues they recognised among their own friends. "There were a couple of guys around our rugby club who suicided," Johnson tells me, and they knew plenty of others struggling with anxiety and depression.

Johnson, who was midway through a Business and Psychology degree at Melbourne's Monash University, had been doing work "linking sport and social change". An offer to spend an entire day with the boys at Frankston High School prompted him, Saulo and Heppell to create the framework that would eventually become the Man Cave. "We sat down and dissected all the challenges we experienced as teenagers," Johnson says. The workshop was a resounding success. "At the end of the day, the principal came in and said, "I've never seen the hallways lit up like this. Boys, for the first time, are saying they're having honest conversations around what's going on"."

"The answers are always the same: be buff, show no emotion, be fearless, don't dog the boys."

Since then, Johnson and his team have worked with more than 20,000 young men, running workshops and camps that give boys the space to grapple with some of the deepest questions of their emerging masculinity. "It's not about throwing away our masculine traits, but more an invitation to explore how they fit within our common humanity."

One of Johnson's favourite moments is when he asks the boys to tell him what it means to be a good man, and what it means to be a real man. The "good" men are noble creatures: respectful, honest, hard-working, kind. But the real men are a different sort altogether. "From the top private schools to some of the lowest socioeconomic areas, the answers are always the same. Be buff, deal with shit, show no emotion, be fearless, don't dog the boys. Then we ask who's felt pressure to live up to these things and every hand in the room goes up."

Johnson's interest in the difficulties of modern masculinity stemmed from his own experiences attending high school in Sydney's northern beaches. "Back then there were four things that moulded our identity: how good were you at sport?; how much money could you make?; how many women could you attract?; and how little emotion could you show while doing those things?" But as the pressures of adolescence escalated at home and at school, he felt unable and unequipped to do anything about them. "I put my armour on each day and faced up to school. I just felt exceptionally trapped by this blokey identity."

Johnson's "get out of jail free card", as he calls it, came in the form of a crippling sports injury at the age of 16. Johnson suffered a total fracture of his right leg during a rugby match, requiring six operations, the insertion of metal rods into his tibia and fibula, two skin grafts and two blood transfusions. He spent the better part of six months unable to walk and was told that there was a high chance he'd never be able to run again. "I was completely crushed," he says. "Sport was my life. I think it was the first time I'd ever felt properly vulnerable." The isolation and disability forced the young Johnson to take stock. "I got to see how I appeared to my mates, and through that to actually question who I was and how I wanted to be seen."

Adolescent psychologist Dr Arne Rubinstein, renowned for his pioneering research on rites of passage in traditional cultures, is one of Johnson's closest mentors. Rubinstein argues that our culture's lack of initiation rituals is one of the key ways in which we're failing our young men. As Johnson puts it, "If boys aren't initiated, they'll initiate themselves".

He points to Netflix, porn and video games – "95 per cent of the boys we talk to play [the video game] Fortnite" – as some of the primary channels that young men are using to unlock the secret of their manhood. As a result of this "virtualisation" of their lives, teenagers are drinking less, taking fewer drugs and having less risky sex, but the withdrawal comes at a cost to their self-esteem, resilience and relationships. "The question is," Johnson says, "how can we foster more meaningful rites of passage where young people experience a shift in their identity and then the community offers them a new responsibility and respect? That's what we're trying to do."

In this quest, the royal attention has proved transformative. "Since meeting Harry and Megan, we've had more then 150 schools from all over the world contact us to work with them, which is a good problem to have." Not that Johnson is one to rest on his successes. "The aim is to have the Man Cave be readily available to every young man in Australia by 2025," he says. It's an ambitious goal, but one that, for Johnson, matches the scale of the problem. "We're trying to stop this next generation from perpetuating the system that got us to this awful point," Johnson says. "And what we find is that boys desperately want this conversation. They just don't know it exists."