One day, well over a decade ago, on a whim, I left my decent job with nothing really going for me – no career direction or aspirations. This was all due to bereavements in my family, and I was in a bit of a rut. After a few aimless months, just by chance, I landed a mental health support worker job. It was an amazing role, of which I was absolutely clueless. It thrust me into the underworld of suffering, pain, and poor mental health, which is experienced by so many. I loved the work so much that I ended up training as a mental health nurse, which further exposed me to mental illness, poverty, degradation, death, loss, and the knock-on effects on caregivers and loved ones.
Being a mental health nurse, someone taking their life is sometimes referred to as “a part of the job”. It’s been said to me, and I’ve probably said it myself. As cold and blunt as it sounds, unfortunately, it is the case. If you work for a mental health service, at some point, someone will take their life. Sadly, the older you get, the more it happens, and you probably know of people who have taken their life.
I began to notice that a lot of people who took their lives were men, which hit home as a man myself with a beautiful innocent little boy. Men taking their lives is a statistic that is sadly very well known. According to the World Health Organization, males account for around 79% of all completed suicides worldwide, while females account for around 21% (WHO, 2019). This gender disparity in suicide rates spans countries and cultures (Canetto & Sakinofsky, 1998). Although women tend to present more often with difficulties, it is pretty much a given that men just don’t access the help they need in the first place (Oliffe & Phillips, 2008).
One loss always sticks with me. As a nurse, my first instinct was to find a solution, to fix the problem. Sadly, despite the best efforts of all my colleagues, this isn’t always possible. This particular loss really got me thinking. If we as a mental health service couldn’t do anything about it, at what point in this person’s life could changes have been made? So I did some mental backtracking. I did some reading and research. I reflected on my time in the Army, the things that helped me and the benefits of exercise, challenges, and goals that strengthened bonding. I also thought about men’s strengths, what they are good at.
Fast forward a couple of years, and I had changed jobs. Now I was assessing mental health difficulties like anxiety and depressive disorders, providing some 1:1 interventions, and running a range of mental health-related groups. Anecdotally, I noticed (generally speaking) that the stereotype of men not being able to talk had a kernel of truth, and I noticed that women get a lot of benefit from sharing and talking to others, whereas men didn’t as much. I also noticed that men tended to really like understanding science and hands-on skills and protocols. When we deliver mental health content that’s about growing, improving oneself, and getting better (as opposed to mental health illness and what to do about it), men get talking, often difficult to stop. The cogs began turning.
Then one day, myself and Charles (the braun and chunk of the brains of Stand Tall) were watching our kids play football. I had a very vague idea that went something like; “I want to set up a men’s group that does exercise and some sort of support group.” This clearly piqued Charles’ interest, He began messaging me with lots of ideas. There were a few things that myself and Charles agreed on very early on: we wouldn’t just talk, we would also take action, be authentic, do our best to combine physical and mental health, and offer practical hands-on help directly to men. What has also surprised me is that there are loads of fantastic resources out there, and loads of fantastic people doing their bit to raise awareness and break the stigma around men’s mental health.
After a lot of tinkering, lots of brainstorming, seeking advice, setting everything up, learning a lot, and some setbacks, we built Stand Tall and our course, the 8-week ‘Strength and Wellbeing Course.’ The idea is simple but turns out to be pretty unique: we provide an intervention that offers hands-on help focusing on personal growth, connection to oneself and others, and mental resilience.
Each 2-hour session of our course has 2 parts: physical and mental. Hour 1 takes guys through the ins and outs and everything in between of using a barbell. The aim is, by the end of the 8 weeks, for our men to be able to perform some complex moves safely and essentially go to a gym and hit the barbell with confidence, regardless of the amount of weights on the bar. It’s for all abilities, but it is hard and challenging. Charles refers to it as a bit of an ego reset. It’s not lifting weights that’s hard; that’s the least important thing. It’s about learning techniques and some complex movements, often with just a PVC pipe initially.
Hour 2 is the wellbeing workshop. Here, we pop next door to our community venue, have a cup of tea or coffee (decaf of course, you’d know exactly why if you attended our sleep session). Here, we cover a range of topics from depression, anxiety, sleep, skills to help manage difficult emotions, and more. All sessions stem from evidence-based approaches, health promotion, psychoeducation, and are generally informed by approaches such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. I try my best to bring in a bit of science and then practical applications that the participants can do that week. The wellbeing workshop is not about talking about your problems or being made to open up in a circle of chairs. It’s about learning and exploring all things mental.
It might not be for everyone, after all lifting weights is not everyone’s cup of tea, but we hope that men can leave our course with the confidence to be able to do arguably some of the best exercises for overall health. There is also a lot of science behind it too. Learning the complex compound movements does a lot for men’s overall health: balance, strength, power, and testosterone.
Why lifting weights? Charles may have a different view as the coach, but this is my observation as a mental health professional and a noob when it comes to Olympic lifting: it’s hands-on, you have to think, it’s something new, if you are struggling with stuff in life, it gives you a focus and with a little practice, men see improvements in real-time. It feels damn good throwing weights over your head, and guys really support each other (regardless of whether you are lifting a PVC pipe or a barbell). What we have seen is that guys feel a little better and in a better place to learn and talk.
One of the proudest moments of my entire career so far was when we finished a course with our pilot participants (who, I’m sure they won’t mind me saying, were all a bit out of shape, and lifting weights was definitely a bit of an ego reset). They took it upon themselves to continue meeting up and hitting the gym. Last I heard, they are still going strong and prioritising their mental and physical health. Boom.
So, that’s my little story of my part in Stand Tall. We are still in the early stages of our journey, learning and improving our skills. There will be bumps in the road, but we hope to grow, connect with others, and offer even more.
Canetto, S. S., & Sakinofsky, I. (1998). The gender paradox in suicide. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 28(1), 1-23. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1943-278X.1998.tb00656.x
Oliffe, J. L., & Phillips, M. J. (2008). Men, depression and masculinities: A review and recommendations. Journal of Men’s Health, 5(3), 194-202. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jomh.2008.03.008
World Health Organization. (2019). Suicide. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/suicide
About the author
I have been working as a mental health nurse since 2016 and have been around the block working in a lot of different areas. At present I work in a service where I assess people and provide interventions. I love my job, I love learning and talking to people about mental health and wellbeing. This article represents my personal opinion and is certainly not medical advice. If you have concerns about your mental health please speak with a GP or health professional.
The CALL helpline – 0800 132 737 or text HELP to 81066. Sometimes reaching out for support whether it is a friend, family member or GP is the hardest thing to do, but a good way to do this is by talking to someone through a confidential and impartial service. CALL Offers emotional support, a confidential listening service and information/literature on Mental Health and related matters to the people of Wales and their relatives/friends.