As part of our Calling Out the Men campaign, I wanted to give you some insight into some real life stories around emotional wellbeing for men in business.
I’d like to thank David for taking the time to talk about his challenges and experiences.
What is it about the Calling Out the Men campaign that you’re drawn to?
Since I opened up about my own mental health issues, I’ve wanted to help others open up about and get help with theirs. I made a series of short films called Focus on Mental Health, a set of personal stories dealing with different issues. With the films I hope that something will resonate with someone somewhere and encourage them to address their own difficulties. I want to show people that it’s ok to admit when you’re struggling. It’s ok to get help if you need it.
I was put in touch with Andy from Calling Out the Men to record his story for one of the films. We realised that we had the same agenda. We’ve both taken a personal approach to mental health campaigning. Andy was good enough to share his story with me, so I’d like to share my story for the Calling Out the Men campaign.
What experiences have you (or any other men you know) had around emotional wellbeing challenges? How have you/they managed?
My mental health started to deteriorate when I worked as a project manager for a large corporation. It was a really demanding job. There was an ingrained culture around coming in early, working hard and working late. We were all burning the candle at both ends and highly ‘stressed.’ This culture of stress was enforced from the top down and those that bought into it were seen as more dedicated, even if it meant they were actually less productive. As long as they were there and grafting then that was all that mattered. There was so much pressure to show this same kind of ‘dedication’ and it took its toll on me. I lived for the weekends and the holidays, yet when I did take them, it took me days, even weeks sometimes for me to relax. Then came the inevitable dread on my return to work.
There were so many days I felt wretched but did nothing about it. I looked for other jobs and then didn’t follow them up. In the evenings I would tell myself tomorrow will be the day that I quit but never did. My superiors didn’t understand the impact their seemingly insignificant comments had on me. I wasn’t right emotionally or mentally and a passing jibe could have me in tears at home saying I can’t do this any more.
Work was hard but a series of events really amped up the feelings of despair. Have you ever seen one of those lists of the most stressful things that can happen in your life? Moving house. Having a child. Changing jobs. A death in the family. For me they all came at once. Work was stressful enough but in 2013/14 I lost my Grandfather. I moved house on 2 occasions from rented accommodation, back to my parents for a few months and then into a house that my wife and I had bought. She was pregnant. My mum was diagnosed with lung cancer. My role also changed within the company. I was promoted which sounds great, but the role wasn’t what I thought it was and I didn’t understand what was expected of me. This really knocked my confidence. All this happened within the space of 18 months and then both my Grandma and my Mum passed away within a week of each other. It totally floored me.
When you have sick relatives, it’s quite common for you to want it to be over. You think that there’ll be some kind of relief when it happens. But when it came for me, there was no relief. The death of my Mum and Grandparents really affected me. I found it much harder than I thought I would.
All the while I was avoiding the fact that I was severely depressed. I went to my GP and was signed off with work related stress several times before I was ultimately diagnosed with depression. The diagnosis came much later than it should have, mainly because I just didn’t want to admit it to myself or believe it to be true. After my diagnosis I was encouraged to attend CBT sessions, which were great. They really helped me to put my feelings into context. I had to complete various exercises to put some structure back into my life so that I could manage all the things I needed to do. Making lists and dedicating time to organising myself day-to-day was a game changer. It kept me going, gave me purpose and meant I was able to look after my daughter properly.
Outside of work I picked up my camera again. Photography had always given me real joy and it was what I studied at University. Just being outdoors in the thick of nature. I love how meditative it is. When concentrating on the perfect shot, your brain shuts up and you can breathe again. I would walk away from an outdoor photography session feeling optimistic. It took a while and a lot more planning but I realised that the type of work I was doing in the corporate world was never going to make me happy or fulfilled. So I made the leap and quit to pursue photography full-time.
Now I really wouldn’t recommend this to everyone. Going freelance and setting up your own business is really not for the feint hearted. The worry around a lack of financial security could be unhelpful. For me however, it was something I needed to do. It was my calling. I don’t get paid as much now, significantly less in fact, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.
What do you think needs to happen next? And how can this campaign help?
Part of the problem for me was that I didn’t feel able to admit to myself that I had depression. Was it shame? Possibly. Or how society has shaped how we interact? I think it’s a combination of a lot of things. What I’ve been trying to say with my films is that it’s ok to admit to yourself that you’re having a hard time rather than struggling on with sheer grit and determination. We all have a hard time. We all go through difficulty. We all need to talk about it way more than we do.
I did try and talk to one of my managers. I was really struggling and said in passing that I had just found out that my mum had been diagnosed with lung cancer. He just didn’t know how to respond. I think this is part of the problem. We don’t know how to react to mental health issues. What he eventually said was “That’s tough. You’ve just got to get on with things havn’t you?” I know it wasn’t his fault but I took this far too literally. I told myself that I just had to get on with it and I couldn’t let what was happening get in the way of my job or my family life. So I kept quiet, went to work and got on with it, which ultimately lead to my depression. This needs to change. We need to get better at this. Get better at listening as well as talking.
I also tried to speak to some close friends. We went to the pub and I told them my mum was sick. The conversation lasted for around 10 seconds until someone changed the subject and it was back to the usual lad banter. When this is the reaction you get when you’re trying to open up, then you learn not to, as there’s just no point.
What has helped, are things like this – opportunities to share. Since I’ve started talking about how I feel more publically, more people have opened up to me. Friends that I had initially tried to speak to have since told me about the situations that they were struggling with and I’ve been able to help them. By talking to each other openly and honestly we help to bring mental health awareness into the public sphere so that it eventually becomes commonplace. Reducing the stigma can only improve the situation for everyone else, so that people can be honest with themselves and get the help they need.
Watch David’s Focus on Mental Health series here.