‘Men must be free to be able to talk about how they feel’

Mick Finnegan has suffered from depression and urges other men to speak out about how they feel  PIC: Mark Marlow/pacemaker
Mick Finnegan has suffered from depression and urges other men to speak out about how they feel PIC: Mark Marlow/pacemaker

According to figures from the Office for National Statistics, suicide currently stands as the biggest single killer of men aged under 45 in the UK.

This is an appalling statistic and one that suggests a mental health crisis among men that is largely going unreported.

The societal pressure to be macho, strong and silent means too many men across the UK and here in Northern Ireland are simply ending their lives instead of seeking help for depression and other mental health problems.

In 2014, there were 6,109 suicides in the UK, of which a staggering 76 per cent were male.

Robert, a farmer from Ballyclare, is someone who understands all these issues firsthand following his own battle with depression, for which he was hospitalised.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” says Robert in response to the dramatic male suicide statistics.

“Men feel they have to do what is expected of them and being open about suffering from depression is not what they are expected to do. Men also tend to have less of a range of friendships than women do, they don’t always have the same support networks. The way that men are perceived in society keeps men suffering in silence because we are expected to be strong and to deal with things on our own.”

Robert intimately understands how the stigma and taboo around male depression is costing lives - he has attempted to take his own life several times and has suffered from some form of depressive illness since he was a teenager.

“I lost a lot of weight when I was ill. I couldn’t sleep. I would get massively stressed overly the smallest things. I was constantly agitated and just couldn’t stand any kind of noise. I was anxious, on edge.

“I found it very difficult even to think about asking for help,” says Robert. “I left it until I was at the point of no return. I’m a farmer and I’d planned how I was going to do it.

“I finally told my wife how I was feeling after concealing the truth from her for some time. I was still keeping up with all my farming duties so there weren’t so many signs of how I was really feeling.

“After I spoke to my wife my GP referred me to a mental health team and I was put on antidepressant medication.

“It was really difficult for my family because I was suicidal and they had to constantly keep an eye on me. I was ultimately hospitalised for depression for several weeks. It was a dreadful time.”

With family, friends and his farming work 54-year-old Robert had plenty of reasons to keep going but depression marred his ability to see the value of his own life and left the farmer certain that his family would be better off without him.

“I felt my family were having no life because they were trying to look after me and I felt very guilty about all the problems my depression was causing. I felt certain my family would be better off without me.”

He continues: “It took a good six months for me to recover from the breakdown I had last March. It’s an ongoing battle. I don’t think you ever fully recover from depression but as I’ve got older it has become something I am more adept at managing.”

Robert’s social worker put him in touch with the mental health charity Aware Defeat Depression who run a variety of support groups across Northern Ireland to assist men and women suffering from depressive illness.

“I find this really helpful. I know that if I don’t go and open up about my feelings with others then I could just go down really badly.”

Dubliner Mick Finnegan, 34, is a key worker for DePaul Ireland who lives in north Belfast. His own battle with depression led to him being sectioned under the Mental Health Act while has was living and working in London.

“I had quite a public breakdown. I had made up my mind to take my own life. The police got a negotiator before I was sectioned.

“I was isolated from my family, I wasn’t staying in touch with friends or loved ones and I wasn’t eating properly. Everything became too much.

“I was an outreach worker with the homeless in London and I literally just had a breakdown one day. I wanted to escape from reality and ended up being detained under the Mental Health Act.

“It was a gradual build up of stress and depression and everything became too much. I spent some time in hospital being detained for nearly a month and over time I got better.

“I was initially reluctant to take medication or have talking therapy because of the stigma but over time I realised these were things I needed in order to get better.

After several years going in and out of hospital I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.”

Mick set up a charity called State of Mind which means he now goes out to other charities and schools to speak about mental health.

“One of the things we keep ignoring is the relationship between social inequality and mental ill health,” says Mick, pointing out the higher incidence of suicide among men from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds.

“Men bottle everything up but we need to get it across that it’s OK not to be OK. We need to hear about personal stories of illness and recovery. We need men to be liberated to feel they can speak out about how they feel and that there is no shame in owning up to feelings of depression. Men need to be allowed to be more open about how they feel - this is what saves lives.”

Being ‘man enough’ to open up, acknowledge vulnerability and ask for help has never been more vital.

Fergus Comiskey is chief executive of Contact, the counselling service that runs the 24-hour LifeLine open to those across the province who are in distress at any time of the day or night.

“We keep teaching men not to cry, not to be a sissy, we are teaching boys to shut up very early and now we come to them wanting to address the problem of suicide and ask them to talk. But we’ve spent so long telling them to do otherwise they don’t always feel they can talk. We need better public health education on depression and we need to be able to identify when men around us are in crisis.”

If you or anyone you know is affected by depression or thoughts of suicide you can contact LifeLine on 0808 808 8000 or the Samaritans on 116 123.