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It's good to talk: a focus on men's mental health

Image credit: Anna Moffat

It's good to talk: a focus on men's mental health

"I’m 100 per cent convinced that if I didn’t go to Andy’s Man Club on that first night, I would have went and killed myself.”

Jai Craik is matter-of-fact in his recollection of that dark Monday night, around a year ago, when he left his home with suicide on his mind.

But at the same time as he took what he intended to be his last steps on a journey with an entirely unknown destination, a group of men were gathering in the local football stadium.

Known collectively as Andy’s Man Club, they were, in a serendipitous twist of fate, meeting to talk about their own mental health problems, and as Craik approached McDiarmid Park in his suicidal state, he was encouraged by a complete stranger to go inside and join them.

“As I was walking up towards McDiarmid Park, I was thinking, ‘this is what I want to do, I want to end it’. But one of the guys from Andy’s Man Club was waiting at the gate and said, ‘come on, come in’, so I didn’t really have much choice to turn back.”

Andy’s Man Club was set up in the summer of 2016 by rugby player Luke Ambler after his 23-year-old brother-in-law, Andy Roberts, took his own life.

The tragic reality is that 784 people died by suicide in Scotland in 2018 and men are more than two-and-a-half times more likely than women to die by suicide.

Its concept is simple: the club provides a safe space for men to meet and chat about their problems without being judged.

There are no doctors, no counsellors, no psychologists, just men helping other men.

In the space of three-and-a-bit years, it has grown from one little group of nine in a small office in Halifax, West Yorkshire, to 22 groups running throughout the UK with weekly attendances of more than 700 people and a Facebook community sitting almost at 40,000.

“Basically, what Andy’s Man Club is, is a safe space for men, it’s peer support, mutual aid for men who meet every Monday night 7-9pm,” explains Adam Allison, who set up the Scottish groups along with his friend and Perth Prison colleague, Alex McClintock.

“The reason it’s 7-9pm is because that’s when Andy took his life and, anecdotally, that’s when men are most likely to take their life.

“The reason they say that is because you have the start of the weekend on the Friday, you climb the rollercoaster on the Saturday, you start coming down the other side of it on the Sunday and when you hit the Monday, that’s when you get men feeling the worst and that’s when they take their life.”

Suicide in Scotland is at a five-year high, and men are far more likely than women to take their own lives. Last year, three times more men than women killed themselves.

There were 784 probable suicides registered in Scotland in 2018, compared with 680 the previous year and the overall figures for males and females last year were 581 and 203 respectively.

As the leading cause of death in young and middle-aged men in most countries – including the UK – suicide has become a major public health challenge.

As a result, the Scottish Government launched a suicide prevention action plan last year, pledging to reduce the number of suicides by 20 per cent by 2022.

And the Suicidal Behaviour Research Laboratory at the University of Glasgow launched a PhD scholarship along with the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH) to deliver research focusing specifically on men to understand suicide risk.

“Men sometimes aren’t comfortable reaching out, or think it might be a burden for their friends if they talk openly about life’s challenges,” says Carolyn Lochhead, head of public affairs and communications at SAMH. “The tragic reality is that 784 people died by suicide in Scotland in 2018 and men are more than two-and-a-half times more likely than women to die by suicide. We need a deeper understanding of the risk factors and how they affect men.”

We want to challenge the ethos out there about men’s mental health. It’s OK to talk, it’s OK not to be OK. We are challenging toxic masculinity – every time we hear people say, ‘man up, get a grip, big boys don’t cry’, we challenge that and say it’s rubbish.

Making it as comfortable as possible for men to talk about their problems is the reason why Andy’s Man Club was set up, and it works because they are sharing their worries with complete strangers, removing that element of “burdening” friends or family.

In Scotland, the support groups run in four separate locations – Perth, Dundee, Glenrothes and Dunfermline – but the long-term plan is to have a group in every major Scottish town and city. 

“When myself and Alex started and we opened up Perth, we sat for five weeks before anyone decided to come,” recalls Allison. “The hardest thing for any man to do on that night is to come in for the first time because he’s coming into strangers, he could be suffering from depression or social isolation.

“Andy’s Man Club is not there to fix anything. We’re not doctors, or psychiatrists, or nurses. But what we have got is a non-judgmental space and guys get to vent, get to talk, where sometimes in doctors, unfortunately, you might only have five or ten minutes.

“We want to challenge the ethos out there about men’s mental health. It’s OK to talk, it’s OK not to be OK. We are challenging toxic masculinity – every time we hear people say, ‘man up, get a grip, big boys don’t cry’, we challenge that and say it’s rubbish.

“Andy’s Man Club works because it’s simple. The guys will tell you it’s saved their life.”

Allison isn’t wrong there – many men credit the group with saving their life.

“It’s a scary thing to do to actually get there. You don’t know what you’re going into,” says Jim Mackie, who is now one of the facilitators at Andy’s Man Club in Perth after first going to the group a year ago. “You’re used to hiding what’s going on, so I spent a few weeks going up, sitting in the car park and going away home again.

“I didn’t have anything else to try. I had already been at the point where I’d taken a massive overdose one night. I’d been through all the normal channels, through the NHS and it just wasn’t doing anything for me. If you go to the doctors and you’re ill, they give you a tablet and you feel better, but it doesn’t work like that with mental health. You need to help yourself.”

Mackie’s mental health began deteriorating after moving to Perth, where he didn’t know anyone, and he began isolating himself at home.

Then he lost his mum, which he describes as the “final trigger”.

“What we do as blokes is just pretend everything is alright,” he says. “We are supposed to be the strong ones who keep everybody going. It got slightly worse and worse, I went to the doctors, got different pills but I wasn’t even telling the doctor the truth, I was saying what they wanted to hear.

“When you come along to the group, there’s so many guys there telling stories very similar to what you’ve been through. You don’t feel stupid, you realise that it’s alright to talk about this sort of stuff and it does make a massive difference.

“When you tell a wee bit of your story and you realise nobody’s judging you and you’re getting a bit of support, it gets easier. It might not be the same story for everyone, but we’re on the same journey.

“After about three or four weeks, I knew that this was what was going to work. I’m not going to sort myself in five minutes flat but if I can function on a daily basis and be there for the kids, then that’s what it’s all about.”

Mackie adds: “I was always a bit closed minded about anything like this. I’d tried therapy twice before. This is different because it’s peer support, it’s not just someone reading out a book, it’s someone saying, ‘I’ve been there, I’ve done that, I got through it and so can you’.”

Robert Wilson has been struggling with his mental health for more than 30 years. During one of his lowest points, he spent six years stuck in his home due to severe agoraphobia.

But after meeting Mackie, he became aware of Andy’s Man Club and, in his own words, it transformed his life.

“I honestly thought I couldn’t open up to strangers, but the welcome that I got that first night I couldn’t put into words,” Wilson recalls. “I was needing help. I see a psychiatrist and psychologist three times a week and even they have said I appear to be getting better therapeutic help through Andy’s Man Club than I’m getting through the NHS. It’s just being able to relate to the guys. To me, we’re all on the same journey. We’ve all got similar health issues. It’s not all me, me, me, it’s a brotherhood.

“I’ve never missed a week. It’s the best day of the week. It’s given me a purpose. I will go out now, whereas before, I’d maybe only go to the Co-operative at 6am for opening, now I can go at any time of the day.

“If it wasn’t for these boys, I wouldn’t be here. I’ve been fighting with my demons, especially these past couple of weeks.”

Wilson’s praise for the group is echoed by Scott Moffat. He was physically and mentally abused as a child and had to watch his mum go through the same ordeal, but kept it all bottled up until he started attending Andy’s Man Club two years ago.

“I didn’t really have much of a childhood growing up,” Moffat explains. “Before Andy’s Man Club, I wouldn’t have said boo to a mouse.

“To begin with, I was overwhelmed, knowing that other people out there were willing to just put their arm around me and give me a shoulder to lean on.

“They’re an extended family. What we say in the group is brotherhood. I rely on them. Getting things off your chest makes you feel a lot more at ease, a lot more comfortable.

 “I’m glad I found it. If it wasn’t for Andy’s Man Club then I wouldn’t be sitting here today.”

I had hit rock bottom, but thanks to Andy’s Man Club, I’m on top of the world again

The Scottish Government launched its ten-year mental health strategy in 2017, focusing on prevention and early intervention; access to treatment; the physical wellbeing of people with mental health problems, and rights, information use and planning.

In launching the strategy, the then mental health minister Maureen Watt said: “Our guiding ambition for mental health is simple but, if realised, will change and save lives – that we must prevent and treat mental health problems with the same commitment, passion and drive as we do with physical health problems.”

But two years in, mental health waiting times are substantial – especially for young people. More than a quarter of those being referred to child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) between April and June this year were not treated within the Scottish Government’s 18-week target, which in itself is far too long for young people to have to wait.

Craik is a prime example: he was just 16 when he first attempted suicide.

After being sexually assaulted, he “closed off” to his friends, and found it impossible to talk about what had happened to him.

It was only six years later, after finding the support of Andy’s Man Club, that he finally opened up, which he believes has put him on the path to recovery.

“It was a massive relief, this had been trapped in me for a while,” Craik says. “I was still really struggling when I started going to Andy’s Man Club, there was a period of a few months when I tried to end my life nine times. Andy’s Man Club was there for me every single time.

“When I was in that stage, I wasn’t thinking of the consequences, but now I’m in a really good place and I put that all down to Andy’s Man Club and the support it’s given me. I don’t see suicide as an option any more. I had hit rock bottom, but thanks to Andy’s Man Club, I’m on top of the world again.”

Craik and the others consistently use the term ‘brotherhood’ when talking about the group, which may sound over the top to an outsider, but in fact, it is the perfect description.

“You could be a dentist, a cleaner, a business owner, when you walk into that room, everybody is equal. The only thing you have in common is that you’re a man that needs help and wants to give support to others. And that’s what’s so fantastic about it.”

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