When we read about suicide, especially male suicide, there is often that all-to-common common response from their loved ones - ‘I had no idea he was in pain’. For Luke Ambler, that was the thought that preyed upon his mind after his brother-in-law, Andy, took his own life. Luke struggled with the fact that Andy hadn’t spoken to him about his depression. He combed over their last interactions in his mind, trying to seek out signs. Yet there were none. This told him one thing that was hard to accept - Andy kept his pain to himself.
It was clear that if Luke were to take anything away from Andy’s death that wasn’t pure tragedy, then he would have to do something to affect change. So Luke set to creating safe spaces for men to speak honestly about their feelings without the risk of judgement or loss of control. Rather, Luke’s aim was to help men take control of their lives and their mental wellbeing. So he founded Andy’s Man Club. A place where men can come together to ease their depression through talking.
I spoke with Neil Waine, Project Development Champion for Andys Man Club.
“Is this it?” I asked. “Is it just about talking?”
“Of course,” Neil replied. “Because many people go through depression but not everyone loses their life through suicide. The burden is what becomes too hard to carry. Just through sharing, the weight on the shoulders of these guys is laid down.”
I wonder, is this is why suicide rates are so much higher in men than in women?
“Absolutely.” Neil agreed. “Women are far better at talking to each other. At opening up. I mean, there have been gentlemen’s clubs and male sports teams and plenty of meetups for just the guys for years, but they aren’t spaces in which men feel comfortable sharing real problems. Especially in regards to mental health.” It perplexes me that even in modern times, where so many celebrities and even Princes are talking about men’s mental health, it’s still not normalised in locker rooms and around pub tables. Though all of humankind, at times, experiences feelings of shame around sharing our innermost thoughts and feelings, it seems especially difficult for men. Kryptonite is not the weakness for the male species, weakness is the kryptonite.
Yet, this should not be surprising. Raised around the idea of ultimate masculinity. With Action Men and toy guns to inspire in them a sense of power, strength and confidence, it’s none too surprising that feelings of helplessness may be detrimental to men to the point that asking for help is a source of shame. The problem is that shame is killing 12 men a day in the UK. And, as Neil points out, suicide is an irreversible action.
Moreover, it creates a ripple effect. Suicide doesn’t just take down the victim, it filters through to all their loved ones. It makes victims of them all too. I don’t say this to shame those who are battling suicidal feelings. Rather, as a reminder that they are not alone. The trouble is, when these feelings rear such a terrifying head, it’s all too often a fight that takes place in the dark between the fighter and the beast. Maybe we need to rewrite the story in which the hero battles alone and gains status from that. Fact is, the Knight in shining armour stands a far better chance of overcoming the threat if he’s got an army behind him.
Andys Man Club acts as that army. Though they’re not storming battlefields roaring. Instead, they are coming together once a week, talking, and listening. Listening is what most members do when they attend their first meetings. Usually, these meetings take place in person in community spaces, yet they have moved online to support their members in wake of the Covid-19 crisis. Amazingly, this has resulted in a massive upsurge of attendees. Neil wonders whether this may be because meetings have become more accessible for those less able-bodied. Also, whether for many it’s easier to find the courage to click a Zoom link than to drive to a meeting and walk through the door. Or perhaps, rising unemployment, debt concerns and the struggle of lockdown life have created a mental health crisis that we’re not even yet at the tip of.
I’m careful not to ask too much about what happens in these meetings. After all, it works because it is a safe, private space. However, Neil is happy to share the structure of the meetings with me.
The method behind Andys Man Club has 5 core questions at its foundation which are asked at every meeting. There is no pressure to speak, members are welcome to reflect on their answers internally or/and just listen. They begin with ‘How’s your week been?’ Within this atmosphere that’s a far more explorative question than when it’s thrown out casually in typical social situations.
The second is ‘What has been positive from the week?’ “This is important,” Andy emphasises. “Although we are here to discuss serious issues, what has been good in the lives of the men we speak with is serious too. It can make those who attend focus on those things that are going well which is so vital to perspective.” The third question is perhaps the most difficult - ‘Does anyone have anything they want to get off their chest?’ Neil tells me this is often the pinnacle part of the meeting. The part where many members struggle but also find release. The sharing of burden is what is key to this organisation and here is where it happens. Ridding themselves of the weight they’ve been carrying. What does this do? Neil tells me he can see the burden begin to fall away as men talk and share. It’s difficult but, as they do so, they even look lighter, he says.
Step four and five are a little different and they also change every week. It’s important to leave meetings on a lighter note. To normalise talking of heavier matters by filtering in some of the trivial. This, I believe, is genius! You cannot make conversations about hard-hitting subjects like mental health a proper part of everyday life unless you bring the everyday life to these conversations. Dare we say, even with a little humour and light-heartedness. So, for example, question four or five might be, ‘If you could walk in anyone else’s shoes whose would you walk in and why? Or, ‘What’s your guilty pleasure song?’ Now, if we can open up about that then all the rest is easier, right?
“If you can admit, as a guy, that you’re genuinely moved by ‘My Heart Will Go On’ by Celine Dion, and no one shames you, then talking about your depression becomes a hell of a lot easier.” I laugh and nod along as Neil explains.
As we move through my list of questions, and ones I didn’t expect to ask, I find myself putting down my pen and getting it. The comradery, the power that happens when men come together, ditch the stigma and support one another as human beings. I’ve experienced this myself, with other women. As a single mother, as a self-employed businesswoman, there are many support groups for me and they act in a similar way to Andys Man Club. A sacred space where people can express themselves expecting only support and empathy.
I’m not surprised this works for men. I’m only disappointed that in these modern times we still have to separate ourselves by gender to feel as if we can speak openly. I’ve pondered on this extensively. Yet, Neil says something which tinkered there in the depths of my mind as I digested all that we spoke about. He told me that the talking that happens within Andys Man Club extends beyond the meetings.
“What many men in Andys Man Club are experiencing, apart from their core issues, are feelings of loneliness and isolation. Being exposed to others who feel that way too, eases this. That reaches beyond the meetings. Often men who are keeping their struggles secret feel empowered to share them with loved ones, having found the strength in Andys Man Club.”
This makes a lot of sense to me. Women talk about ‘female issues’ with other women. Men talk about ‘male issues’ with other men. Especially if they’re exposed to great organisations like Andys Man Club. Ultimately though, the burden needs to be shared amongst all of us. Amongst humanity. Because there’s no such thing as ‘men’s issues’ and ‘women’s issues.’ Loneliness, stress and depression are universal stigmas that infiltrate all of us. Yet, I do understand the need to gender group together, at least to begin with.
So, we come to what I believe is the most important part of my interview with Neil. The question of what can we do to support men, and women, who are dealing with issues of mental health.
Neil suggests a refreshingly simple solution - when you ask how someone is, always ask twice. The first answer is usually the expected response, ‘I’m fine.’ Asking again permits them to go deeper. It lets them know you’re there and genuinely open.
Letting someone know that you care about what’s underneath the core is the first step to enabling these life-saving conversations to take place. “Unfortunately, there are not always a lot of signs if someone is struggling. Some may become withdrawn. At the same time, it’s worth keeping an eye on the guy who’s always the life and soul of the party because many of us are masters at putting on a show.”
It’s not a reach to describe what Andys Man Club is doing as life-saving. Yet, what they’re doing is simple. I asked Neil so many more questions but I keep coming back to the first - ‘Is it just talking?’ Yes. See, talking is releasing in the way that stretching out a muscle can relieve tension. That released tension can lead to an easing up, a slow jog and then a run. “There’s a saying I have a mixed relationship with,” Neil comments. “It’s that one, ‘it’s ok not to be ok.’ Fundamentally, I agree with it, but I think it needs expanding because whilst there’s no shame in not being ok, we need people to want to be ok. We want Andys Man Club members, and any future members to know that not being ok is temporary. There’s always light at the end of the tunnel.” If we’re going to confront this rise in male depression and suicide then we must break down the stereotypes that led us here. Those that tell young boys that men must be strong, unemotional and independent. We must normalise men talking about their everyday feelings and struggles so that if a storm hits, the lines of communication are already open.
Twelve male lives are lost every day to suicide. Tragically, for each of these losses, there was potential support. The potential of understanding and acceptance. Most importantly, there was a chance for each life lost to be saved.
So I urge every reader to share this article and let people know about Andys Man Club. This organisation is saving lives through conversation. So, I’m asking you - what can you do to open up that conversation too?