Call for Lancashire men to ask themselves key question to check their mental health
Some of the most difficult conversations start with a question.
And a South Ribble borough councillor is encouraging men to ask a particularly searching poser of themselves in order to bring any hidden mental health problems out into the open.
Stephen Thurlbourn has made the plea to mark International Men's Day.
He knows from personal experience how easy it is for past traumas and present problems to collide and he wants to help men identify underlying issues in a controlled way - so as to avoid a potential catastrophe further down the line.
“I was just ploughing on with life, I didn't have any inkling that something was wrong,” Stephen recalls of the time just before he first became aware of the fragility of his own mental health three years ago.
“But somewhere along the way, you do start to realise that things are not right - maybe it’s mood swings or just you not being you any more.
“At that point, you need to ask yourself if you need help - but you also need to speak to someone close to you and ask them outright, ‘Am I different now?’
“That’s what I asked my wife - and she said I was.”
It was a tough message to hear and remains a difficult moment to recount. However, Stephen knows that had he not asked the question, he would never have received the help that he now recognises he so desperately needed.
Twenty years had gone by since he left the army, where he spent almost a decade serving in the Scots Guards. During two tours of Northern Ireland, he lost two friends - one of whom was killed just minutes after being dropped off by Stephen at his base.
“By the time I got back to my own base, he was dead.
“When you’ve just been talking to somebody who was so full of life, that really does shock you,” Stephen remembers.
Yet as much as he realised that he had been caught up in a devastating incident, it was two decades before an entirely separate personal trauma and depression finally led to him being diagnosed with anxiety-based post-traumatic stress disorder.
While Stephen’s experience was particularly extreme, he is all too aware of how quickly lives can unravel - and he credits the counselling he received after his diagnosis with helping him to stitch his own back together.
However, he fears that a reluctance in many men to confront the most serious problems in their lives is driving far too many of them to brink - and, tragically on occasion, beyond it.
“I used to work on the railway and we did suicide prevention training with the Samaritans.
“They played us an anonymised call they had received from a guy who was talking about his broken toaster - and it was only 20 minutes later that you found out he was stood on the end of a platform thinking some dark thoughts.
“So a man can be talking about something like that, which seems entirely irrelevant - but what you don’t know is that maybe his wife left him a few weeks ago or his business failed a few months ago and then this other thing just brings it all to a head.”
Stephen is now working as a non-executive director with a Preston-based group which aims to step in long before a man reaches such a tortured stage in his life.
Men Hear was formed just last year, but has already helped almost a hundred men who have passed through its physical and virtual doors since.
The community interest company offers so-called “peer-led support” for men experiencing anything from depression and addiction to anxiety and loneliness.
“You’d be surprised how many guys are just lonely - and it’s isolation that can lead to a lot of those other problems,” says the group’s founder William Killeen, who established the service after realising that there was a need for a “confidential space” to help men withstand whatever trials they may be enduring.
Many of those who have benefited from the support on offer have required some coaxing to truly open up - but once they do, it encourages others to follow suit, William explains.
“A lot of people say, ‘Well, I’ll come to the group, but I’m not going to say anything.’
“But then when they see all these other normal guys just laying it out, they feel comfortable doing the same.
“We do the blokey thing when everyone arrives and have a bit of a laugh, but then we know that the next two hours is the serious time working through things together.
“And a lot of the guys have their own advice to give about situations that others may be facing - so I give a bit of me and you give a bit of you, it’s a trade off in that way.”
William - who was working at a school in the city and completing his teacher training when the idea for Men Hear was born - acts a facilitator for the group, meaning he helps to direct the often delicate discussions.
Along with longer-term practical projects - including a gardening scheme and the restoration of a barge - the 44-year-old believes Men Hear has hit upon a successful formula combining camaraderie and life skills.
Outside of lockdown, members meet at Plungington Community Centre and can also request one-to-one sessions. But an enforced shift to online gatherings at various points during the pandemic has seen the group’s membership balloon and extend beyond Preston to all corners of Lancashire.
The organisation also receives referrals from the NHS as part of the social prescribing scheme, under which people are directed to community groups who may be able to help them with a range of social, practical and emotional issues.
Stephen acknowledges that many men will still need formal counselling or specialist medical and practical help to fully turn their lives around - but hopes that Men Hear is the first step on the road to realising that they have a future worth fighting for.
“It’s about getting men to understand that you can crash land and maybe lose everything - but start again.
“I hear stories of blokes who have hit absolute rock bottom - they’re in a bedsit with two kids next to them and they have got coppers in their pocket, but they make it through.
“It's a struggle and that struggle may continue - but the first thing is to make sure men are more willing to talk about these things.
“We’re too quick to say, ‘I’m alright’ - when really we’re not.”
CONTACT MEN HEAR
Email: [email protected]
Phone (24hr): 07775799395