This blog is written by our Ops Director Paul, who describes how he ended up in this line of work and he talks about an excellent men only mental health initiative based in Eastbourne. If you would like to contact him, you can reach him by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
The words most commonly used to describe me are ‘confident’, ‘self-assured’ and ‘assertive’. I’m a natural leader and am usually the first one to dive into action whenever there is a crisis. I am also a man. In short, I’m the last person you’d expect to have mental health problems. Big boys don’t cry, after all.
I began my Policing career in 1977 at the age of eighteen and was posted to Brighton. Following two years of basic training I was transferred to Gatwick and became a firearms officer. My innate confidence and ability to cope with stress served me well.
Two thirds of my career were spent as a firearms response officer across Sussex, which meant a large part of my adult life was spent in an overwhelmingly masculine environment. We were encouraged to be a bit rough and hard around the edges. It was the ‘done thing’ to be emotionally strong, to look on another’s mental struggles with impatience. I was young, I was a naïve, and I had little patience for others who might be struggling to cope.
As a member of the armed response team I had been involved in incidents that a lot of people would find emotionally upsetting and one such incident in the late 90s became the catalyst for a decline in my own mental health. I suddenly found my life spiraling out of control; something I had never experienced before. I wasn’t concentrating at work, I was argumentative and angry, I was having anxiety attacks for the first time in my life. Within weeks I was signed off work and within months I was receiving treatment for PTSD. Me, the confident one, the one who keeps his head in a crisis; I was suddenly under the care of a psychiatrist. I was one of those people that struggled, one of the people I’d scoffed at before.
I really hoped that this incident wouldn’t define my career and, after time and treatment, I was operational again and back on the front line. I had come through the murky woods of a mental health crisis and emerged as confident as ever, on the other side. Sussex Police supported me through this time and, although I am sure some senior officers had doubts about me being operational again, they listened to medical advice and welcomed me back. Interestingly, at a time when I was at my most vulnerable my colleagues kept telling me how brave I was for facing my mental health issues. Over the years I found out that other officers had also received psychological help following the same incident but had kept it to themselves.
Five years later it was noticed that my hand strength was declining, affecting my ability to shoot (not an ideal situation for a firearms officer) and I was removed from operational duties again while doctors ran test after test in a bid to find out what was going on. History was repeating itself; my life was beginning to slip out of my control and my mental health was paying the price. Eventually, the uncertainty came to an end when I was diagnosed with a rare incurable neurological condition. It would become degenerative and life-limiting without regular and time-consuming hospital treatments for the rest of my life. I have now had that treatment
every eight weeks for the past 16 years and, apart from being 16 years older, the treatment enables me to lead a normal life.
This time, as I entered into another breakdown in my mental health, I was older and I was wiser. I was able to be proactive in putting coping strategies in place for myself. Exercise became a massive feature in my life; it was the only thing I could control and manage, it gave me a sense of purpose and proactivity and helped to keep my body and mind strong.
It was around this time, as I faced a permanent removal from operational duty, that my awareness of mental health and its fragility started to really grow. I was no longer the guy that looked down on someone who struggled; now I’d been there myself. Twice. If someone like me, someone so self-assured and confident, could crumble like I had, then surely anyone could fall at any time. What I had once seen as a sign of weakness, as many do, I had at last learnt was something that could happen to anybody no matter how strong you perceive yourself to be. I had undoubtedly matured in age, but I had also grown in my understanding of other people and their unique struggles to keep themselves above the water.
I retired from the police after thirty years’ service, I moved into teaching and began educating at a local college. I witnessed first-hand the challenges young people can face in terms of their mental health and, while I didn’t have the tools to fully support them, I learnt how to be a lot more considerate and empathetic towards their experiences. Despite throwing myself into my teaching role, I knew I was looking for something more; I wanted to give something back.
A chance meeting with a good friend of mine brought the Samaritans to my attention for the first time and I was inspired. When I told family and friends that I was planning to join a charity that offers a listening ear to people in need some of them laughed: I was the hard-nosed problem solver, a fixer, not a listener. It was a steep learning curve for me to go from the need to fix, which had been ingrained in me for thirty years, to simply allowing someone else’s problems to be. To go from pointing out the solutions to simply letting someone be heard and to give their feelings some validation, some air. But learn I did and it wasn’t long until I joined the training team within the charity and I am now helping to support and develop new volunteers in their own journey as a Samaritan.
There was no turning back at this point and I joined forces with two like-minded friends and set up the The Wellbeing and Performance Company, which is a passionate campaigner for better mental health in the workplace. We offer support and guidance for employers of big and small companies alike. A mentally healthy workforce is a productive one. Through our company I gained my Mental Health First Aid qualification.
At one of our Wellbeing Events, I ran into Ian, a Health and Safety consultant in the building industry. Like me, Ian had recently been experiencing something of an awakening to mental health issues. On average, two men from the building community commit suicide each day. Indeed 75% of all suicide victims are men.
Just as I was honing my skills as a listener with the Samaritans, supporting people with suicidal and life-threatening thoughts, Ian was trying to find a way to reduce these appalling statistics. How could we better support men who were suffering alone with their mental health? How could we allow men like us to find an outlet in a society that still prizes the stoic resilience and stiff-upper lip of masculinity?
Our joint mission began with a reconnaissance of other support groups that were available for men. Our journey took us to deepest Hampshire, where we joined the guys from Man Gang at one of their get-togethers. We loved what they were doing and we wanted to bring a support system like that to our hometown of Eastbourne; and so ManKind was born.
ManKind began with a meeting at the wonderful Café 32 on South Street in Eastbourne. The inaugural get-together attracted a range of men, some were friends, there to support Ian and I on our new venture, and some were strangers (at least at first) who had come across details of our meeting on our Facebook page. We sat together in the café and, over a coffee, we just talked. Everyone shared something of their own mental health journey, be it current or past.
It’s not always easy to talk, even more so for men, who are battling against years of ingrained reminders to ‘man up’ and so to shut up. One of the group confessed that he had walked past the café four times before he’d plucked up the courage to join us. Another, that he had sworn to himself that he would turn up, listen to the others but say nothing of himself. It turned out he felt safe and comfortable enough to open up so much so that, in his own words, he was “talking like a good’un!”.
Two great meetings later and the Covid-19 pandemic arrived. We found ourselves – and our fledgling support group – locked down, along with the rest of the world. Changing with the times, we switched to online meetings and increased them to once a week. We’ve enjoyed welcoming new members online (even and especially the guys who swear they’ll keep their camera off and their microphone muted). At times the conversation can be emotional, but more often than not we’re just a bunch of guys having a chat and a laugh. We take heart from knowing that, in opening up and helping ourselves, we’re helping others as well.
Overwhelmingly, we hear from the men who join us each week that our gathering is a safe space to talk, it’s not a forum where you’ll be lectured or judged. We’ve all had our struggles with mental health, some of us have come out the other side and some of us are still battling those demons, but all of us want to talk. That is our rallying cry: there is no need to suffer in silence. It isn’t weakness to speak and to share. We are all taking small steps and with each movement forward we’re challenging the gender stereotypes that have fueled the horrendous numbers of men who feel they have no other way out.
The ManKind environment is safe, it’s welcoming, it’s an opportunity for a laugh and a joke with friends. It is anything but threatening, it is anything but weakness. If you think you might be struggling with your mental health, no matter the cause, then you will always be welcomed and heard in our community. There is no commitment required and no pressure to attend. The get-togethers are set up for people to come and go, to dip-in and dip-out as they need to.
We’ve recently launched a WhatsApp group for our ManKind community to stay in touch with one another throughout the lockdown – and beyond. It is totally free to join us and by sharing your story, you make it easier for others to share as well. I went an awfully long time without letting anyone see that I was suffering inside. I couldn’t allow people to see my vulnerability, to see my “weakness”. I have realised now that there is little stronger and more powerful than allowing others to see and support you through the raw and painful days of your life as well as share with you the best ones.
If you have made it to the end, thanks for taking the time out of your day to read my story. Take care of yourself.