Andy's Man Club: Preston mental health group joins national #ItsOkayToTalk movement

It’s the kind of statistic which bears repeating: suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45 in the UK. According to the Office for National Statistics, the male suicide rate in 2019 across England and Wales was the highest it’s been for two decades, with one man taking his own life every two hours on average.
Co-founder of the group, Luke AMblerCo-founder of the group, Luke AMbler
Co-founder of the group, Luke AMbler

In 2016, 23-year-old father Andy Roberts was one of those men.

“In my dreams, I meet him in the woods where he’s thinking about [taking his own life] and I say ‘you give me five reasons why you should and I’ll give you a thousand reasons why you shouldn’t,’” says Andy’s mother, Elaine. “Then I just say ‘I’m going home now, but you’ve got to make this decision. Just think about what I’ve said’.

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“And in my dream he always comes home. Just talk to somebody.”

Andy's Man Club membersAndy's Man Club members
Andy's Man Club members

Offering men the chance to do just that, Andy’s Man Club is a national charity dedicated to getting blokes to open up.

Founded by Elaine and Andy’s brother-in-law, the former Leeds Rhinos and Ireland international rugby league player Luke Ambler, the charity offers men over the age of 18 a safe space in which to talk.

And, having grown from their initial one-off meeting in Halifax, West Yorkshire to a national movement boasting 28 groups in cities and towns from Dundee to Torbay, Andy’s Man Club has now got a recently-founded Preston group, too.

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“I wanted to get involved because it’s such an inspirational movement,” says Gerard Hughes, who became the facilitator for the Preston group after retiring this summer just gone. “I heard about Andy’s Man Club when I saw Luke give a presentation.

Gerard Hughes, facilitator at the new Preston group.Gerard Hughes, facilitator at the new Preston group.
Gerard Hughes, facilitator at the new Preston group.

“It just really captured my imagination,” he adds.

The Preston group held its first socially-distanced meeting at Penwortham Cricket Club in late November and has continued to do so every Monday at 7pm since then.

“The first meeting went really well,” says Gerard, aged 64, from Preston. “The thing that stood out was how ready guys were to share: there was no reticence. The informal nature of the group is crucial and anybody’s problem is real to them because it’s happening to them and creating pain for them. It’s all relative.

“We want to spread the word far and wide,” adds Gerard. “We don’t have all the answers - we’re not problem-solvers - but we can offer support and allow people to talk, which is a therapy in itself.

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“We’re a self-help group, and there’s no proper substitute for face-to-face meetings in which you can really relate to people,” he continues.

While just nine people turned up to the first ever Andy’s Man Club meeting in West Yorkshire, the ‘magic’ experience of opening up in such a supportive setting soon saw the movement grow into something powerful.

Keen to do all he can over this side of the Pennines, Gerard is hoping for a similar snowball effect in Preston. But that stigma around actually talking about mental health still exists for men, he says.

“Had it been an Andy’s Women’s Club, I could have filled a football stadium,” Gerard explains, with 11 people from a wide range of age groups having turned up to the first Preston meeting.

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“But getting men out of the attitude of ‘I can deal with this and cope on my own’ is hard; breaking that barrier and getting people in the room and talking is the crucial step. I couldn’t sleep after the first meeting because I was buzzing and on a high,” he adds. “It’s just tremendous to be involved and there’s a feeling of elation at having allowed guys to have that space to talk.

“Modesty prevents me from saying I feel proud, but I suppose I do.”

Asked what he would say to someone who’s thinking of coming but is still on the fence about the whole thing, Gerard is emphatic.

“We don’t put pressure on anyone: guys can come in and don’t have to say anything if they don’t want to,” he says. “But come along. Just do it.”