Talking about mental health can be difficult for anyone and statistically, it’s men who are more likely to suffer in silence*. Good Living asked four men to share their tales of speaking up and seeking help…
(Left to right, below) Tony Howarth, 60, is a capability manager. He worked as a Samaritans volunteer in his 50s following mental health struggles in his youth.
Jonny Benjamin, 32, is a mental health campaigner and author. He was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder in his 20s.
Andy Crisp, 41, is a PR and marketing consultant. He suffered from postnatal depression after the birth of his first daughter.
Greg Arundell, 24, is an actor and writer. He had a mental health crisis in his teens after the death of his older brother.
Can you describe the mental health struggles you have faced?
Greg: My eldest brother, Edward, was severely disabled and when I was 14, he died. I felt I needed to be strong for my family and bottled up the grief. It felt like a dark cloud had covered me and weighed me down. A year later, I had a breakdown. I woke up and didn’t think I could face the day. It was suffocating.
Tony: I was about 20 when I started seeing things. I remember looking up at the night sky and seeing just a wall of hard black. This was in the 1970s and I was scared to see a doctor in case it went on my record and I lost my job. Eventually, I was diagnosed with psychosis.
Andy: For me, it came at what should have been one of the happiest times of my life – the birth of my first daughter, Ffion, in September 2015. I had always thought I’d make an amazing dad, but when she came home from the hospital, I felt overwhelmed. I was crippled by anxiety and struggled to help look after her, even just changing her nappy. I felt completely out of my depth.
Jonny: At school, I always felt different and struggled to make friends. At 15, depression hit but I didn’t see a doctor until I was 17. The waiting list for mental health services was too long, and I decided going to university for ‘the time of my life’ would solve it. In 2008, my final year, I had a breakdown; I felt like I was possessed. I was put in a psychiatric hospital and diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder – and a month later planned to end my life.
What was the turning point?
Jonny: I was stopped on the edge of Waterloo Bridge by a stranger**. He was so non-judgemental and compassionate. The key was just him saying, ‘You’re going to get better’ – no one had said that to me in hospital. The next couple of years were tough; I didn’t want to talk to therapists, I just wanted to run away from it all. Finally, in my mid-twenties, I started to talk about my disorder in YouTube videos and the response was amazing.
Tony: My turning point was calling Samaritans – just having someone listen was a massive thing for me. It gave me the confidence to see a doctor, who prescribed medication; the difference it made was phenomenal.
Andy: For me, it was a text from a friend the day after Ffion came home to ask how it was going and I replied honestly, ‘This is horrible, I hate it, I don’t know what to do.’ Seconds later, he rang to say he’d been through the same thing. He basically said, ‘You’ll never be the dad you think you’re going to be – you’ve never done it before.’ It really helped.
Greg: I was at boarding school and I felt so shut off. I left Mum a voicemail saying, ‘I’m really not OK.’ My parents came to the school and I started counselling two weeks later.
Was there a point where you knew things were starting to get better?
Jonny: I started seeing progress in therapy. I began actually wanting to see people and engage in society. If you’re in the depths of depression, you struggle with the symptoms and your judgement is clouded so you think you’ll never get better. It’s important for people to know you can get there.
Greg: I started to look forward to counselling and talking about what had been good – and bad – for me that week. It’s the little victories that make you realise you’re on the way.
Andy: Bronwen, our second daughter, was born in January and I was so anxious that the same thing would happen again. Bizarrely, she came along so quickly, I ended up delivering her in our bathroom at home! I was like, ‘I can deal with anything after that!’ Weirdly, the thing that put me in a dark place was also what ‘saved’ me.
Tony: For me, it was the realisation that I had been ill three times – and I had also got better three times.
Why do you think men find it difficult to address their mental health issues?
Jonny: I used to cry a lot as a kid, and people would say, ‘Come on, big boys don’t cry.’ Being told from a young age that boys shouldn’t be vulnerable has a lasting impact. Boys I speak to in schools are often embarrassed to talk about how they feel.
Tony: It’s the typical things people say, like ‘man up’ and ‘sort yourself out’ that stop men talking. You’re brought up to take the role of provider in life, so if there’s a problem, you sort it out.
Andy: Yes, growing up, my role models were my granddads and my dad. They were breadwinners – you’d never have caught them talking about feelings. In 20 years’ time, I hope we’ll be the role models boys can look up to and know you haven’t got to put on a brave face.
Greg: I hope it will start to bleed into older generations, too. My dad went through a bad spell last year but got the help he needed – and I think it’s because he’d seen me open up.
What do you do to help maintain good mental health now?
Tony: I still get depressed and anxious but when I do, I’ll go for a run which I love, talk to my wife or see friends.
Greg: I’m very lucky that I’m no longer in the situation that I was a year ago. It will always be there but it’s taken more of a back seat. I find writing helps, and playing team sports. Or just taking time to myself to sit and think.
Jonny: Being kinder to myself, more compassionate. Sleep is so important, and I am mindful of stress and not working myself into the ground.
Andy: Ffion is talking a lot now, so I get a lot of affirmation from her. At the coast recently, I was teaching her to fly a kite and I actually took a physical step back and thought, ‘This is it, this is something to hang on to.’
What else have you learnt?
Tony: ‘This too will pass’. No matter how bad you feel, it will change.
Andy: I feel I’m a better person for it, much more empathetic. I want to hear other people’s stories and help them.
Jonny: I appreciate life so much more. It was colourless before; it felt like a burden. Now I get moments where I go for a walk or I see friends and I’ve just got this power – like, wow, there’s colour back in life. I feel much happier.
Greg: The main thing is being able to talk and not bottle it up. To realise you’re not alone and there’s someone else out there going through it, too. I’ve gone from feeling ‘this is the worst thing in the world’ to realising I can take something positive from it.
Where to go for support
We asked Matt Johnson – co-host of The Naked Professors podcast and mental health campaigner – for his advice…
The best thing you can do is communicate. Suppressing your emotions will only make you feel worse. People will want to help and if you’re worried about talking to friends or family, try a helpline first.
Be kind to yourself
Take practical measures to make yourself feel better. Simple things like drinking more water, taking deep breaths, getting outside for a walk or a run or even going to the cinema and escaping into a film can help.
If you’re worried about someone, ask them how they are – twice. Make a connection and make sure you get a straight answer. It takes two minutes and it can change somebody’s life.
Find online or phone support
CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably), a charity for men in crisis, has a helpline open from 5pm to midnight, 365 days a year – call 0800 58 58 58 or, for more info, visit thecalmzone.net.
Samaritans Call 116 123 free, 24/7 or visit samaritans.org.
Young Minds offers free support 24/7 to young people in need of urgent help – text YM to 85258. For further details, visit youngminds.org.uk.
Mind For advice on caring for your own mental health and supporting others, visit mind.org.uk.
*Source: YouGov survey for mentalhealth.org.uk, 2016.
**Jonny tells his story in his book The Stranger on the Bridge.
✝Source: Men's Health Forum.