From Suicidal Student to Serving Stressed-out Men and Boys during Covid-19
Promising Kent student outgrows serious mental health issues with the help of men’s groups, then goes back to schools to set up online talking and wellbeing groups, with the aim of giving young people a safe space to support and learn from each other, relieve isolation, make new friends and feel better equipped to handle life’s challenges, especially in the stressful times of Covid-19
I was really excited about university. I thought it would be "the time of my life", I'd meet life-long friends and have loads of fun and actually enjoy my subject of study.
My reality was the opposite. I was bored, lonely, depressed, and suicidal.
Sometimes I would feel actual pain in my heart from being so unhappy. I’d never heard anyone talk about this before. If someone had just said to me “This is something that can happen in life” - like we do in men’s groups - I think I would have been better equipped to deal with my issues.
I tried counselling and CBT but I found them only slightly effective in providing some relief.
One day the suicidal feelings were so overwhelming that I mustered up the courage to go to a support group. That was the first time I talked about what was really going on in front of a group of people. In the middle of what I was saying, I started to cry. It was scary but I found some relief.
I went a few more times and it was good, but it lacked something. I’d read about men's groups in a couple of books so I decided to try that next.
After trying a few different ones, I found MenSpeak Men's Groups - the group which I still attend today, four years on.
At one of the first sessions I talked in detail about my depression, anxiety, panic attacks, suicidal thoughts etc. The facilitator asked if anyone could relate, and about eight guys of varying ages and backgrounds put their hand up. It was really, really powerful - just to know that I'm not alone in my experiences.
Another time a guy came along who was someone I used to consider "cool". He said these groups were essential for his mental health. That gave me permission to like the groups and need them too. Before that day I was embarrassed about them, they were my secret.
Through the men’s groups I turned things around, letting go of my suicidal thoughts, panic attacks and loneliness. This is where I’ve met my closest friends.
I trained to become a men's group facilitator, I co-facilitated a men’s group for a year then I realised my passion, to work with older boys and young men. I've held boys’ groups in schools since 2019. This has been the most rewarding thing I've ever done. The kids feel safe enough to share very deep things, like severe illnesses and deaths in the family. One boy talked about opening a memory box a few weeks ago that his mum had made before she died of cancer. That was the last time he cried - a question we ask in our groups with no pressure to answer.
I had to try and stop myself from crying so many times.
My passion now is to help schools set up their own peer-led talking and wellbeing groups using the MenSpeak format. I believe they’re the most effective, affordable and accessible way to create real community, connection and support for those in need.
I want to share my story far and wide so young people know what can happen while they’re growing up and how to manage these things if they do happen.
Since Covid-19 has hit, MenSpeak has been running daily online mini-men’s groups to meet men in a similar stressful situation as when I was a student.
Covid-19 has of course closed down all schools, however I’m working with another organisation, States of Mind, and we’ve got at least one or two schools who have shown interest in setting up online peer-led groups to help relieve the isolation and bring support to students during this uncertain time.
We had our first exploratory session recently and the students were interested in the idea of a talking group. They feel they can't go to friends with some issues, or parents, or teachers, and they feel counselling is too 'formal', so a confidential, peer-led group sounds perfect. They want to hear from other young people about the struggles they're going through, and have a safe space to share their challenges of living in the time of Coronavirus. They want to make new friends with peers they don’t normally get the chance to speak to.
It's my hope that these talking and wellbeing groups - both online and offline - will become another option for students alongside counselling and welfare services. Students need more support than they're currently getting. If they'd existed for me I might not have needed to fall down so many holes and feel so desperately alone in navigating my way through student life.