Jhilmil Breckenridge spoke with Stephen Gillatt about the issues of mental health and men and how society does not allow vulnerability in men. Stephen has recently written a mental health memoir as he wants to get more men talking about mental health.
Editorial Support: Daanika Kamal
Tell us about the origin of this book.
Following my breakdown in 2014, I had been unwell for some time and in and out of therapy. I started feeling very fragile again; paranoid, guilty about every single thing I said and did, socially anxious, short tempered, and becoming distant from my wife. I was not being either the father or the husband that I wanted to be. I also found myself withdrawing from friendship, into isolation. It was then that I decided to start writing a diary. I needed an outlet. I started writing poetry too, much of it quite dark. When I showed it to a couple of close friends, they suggested it could turn into a book. After months of entries, I read it back and realised that it really had the potential to help those who are suffering in silence; for them to know that they are not alone, and that it is okay to not feel okay. I wanted them to know that no matter how hard it may be to talk about your problems, people will listen. Talking has the potential to change lives.
In your opinion, does society allow men to have depression and mental health issues?
I’m not sure if ‘allow’ is the right word. The stigma is real, and breaking it is hard. We are allowed to be, and do, anything within reason. It is more about how men are viewed and stereotyped. Historically, society has always viewed men as separate from weakness, emotionality or vulnerability—the typical alpha male— with perceived weakness being pounced upon for the gain of others. Society still maintains spaces where men feel unable or unsupported in terms of talking about mental health. Many people and businesses are not ready nor able to cope with complex people with complex mental conditions. It is less a case of being allowed, and more a case of not feeling supported.
How does family, society, community, etc. treat men with mental health distress?
There is still huge social stigma around mental health and mental illness. For men, it is consistently difficult as we are trying to break historical, stereotypical views of the way we are viewed. We are supposed to be strong, tough, resilient, unflappable, impervious to pressure and emotionally rock-solid. Talking about our emotions is still largely viewed as weak. Mental health awareness month is amazing, and there are so many incredible advocates for men’s mental health; but the fact that men’s suicide rates are still so high and there is an ongoing need for these messages must be continuously repeated, shows that there still needs to be a societal shift in narratives before men feel truly comfortable talking about feelings, emotions and mental health.
Families, I think, are very individual. The main challenge is the high number of people who are unaware of mental health challenges, especially older generations, simply because they have not been exposed to it or have lived with mental health problems for decades without diagnosis or support. It feels like these dynamics are changing in younger generations. However, many still have old-fashioned values, like I did. Emotional openness and vulnerability can look and feel very uncomfortable. I mean, it’s still not exactly seen to be Friday-night pub conversation or a weekend pre or post-match chat is it? It is still difficult. It can still be embarrassing. People still don’t feel they can do it.
Tell us more about the title and where it came from.
I’d been thinking for months about something that encapsulated me. I’d often referred to myself as ‘mad’ to make people feel more at ease and I wanted something punchy and real. In reality, I’ve been sad for long periods of my life. Sometimes months or years at a time, since I was fifteen, so over twenty-five years now. The sadness is real, affects so many people, and for whatever reason, they just bottle it up and carry on. Looking back on my life—addictions, drug use, (I stopped illegal drugs when I was in my early twenties though I still drink alcohol and caffeine), self-harm and terrible relationships; my behaviour when I was young and living at my parents; my early jobs, some I walked out of and some I was fired from; my conduct and how I treated myself and my friends—dysfunctional was the only word I could think of to describe myself. I wanted to show that fatherhood, although the most incredible privilege and experience, is not straightforward or easy. I wanted to shed light on the reality that so many parents are living with, some with varying levels of mental health problems and mental illnesses while raising a family.
How important is it for men to be ‘functional’?
Primarily for me, it’s crucial to my self-esteem, self-worth and pride. I want to feel that I am contributing to the maintenance of my household and family unit. That I am independent, valuable and even successful in supporting my wife and taking care of my children. When I was signed off from work, my mental health deteriorated quickly because I felt I was no longer doing any of that. People were looking after me. And when I eventually had to leave employment due to the same reasons, I felt totally emasculated. I felt like a total failure. At times, I still do. We all want to be independent. And as brothers, fathers, uncles, we want to be role models. We want to be strong and support the people around us.
How would you like to world to change after this book has been published? In other words, do you think the world is flawed as it is, and you would like to see a change?
In reality? I’m not sure how much difference my book will make. I hope that it might help just one person not feel as alone, to feel that it’s okay to not feel okay. I hope it helps to realise that struggling with mental health is nothing to be ashamed of, and reading the book helps them feel a bit more positive about talking to their close family and friends about what they are going through.
I would like people to feel that they no longer have to bottle up how they are feeling. And for businesses and society to enable people to work together and make it easier to express the way we feel and get the help we need.
Who have you written this book for?
For men, firstly. To show men everywhere what it is like to like with long term mental health issues. To help shed light on therapy, and how it helps. It is also for people with addictions, who may be at rock bottom, to show that it is possible to break habits and recover. I don’t want men living with mental health problems to feel alone, or that they need to suffer in silence. I hope this book helps them realise that help is available, and that it is okay to admit that you are in pain; suffering, struggling and need help. I want them to know that their lives are valuable, and they are loved.
I have also written this book for partners who love and support us unconditionally and unequivocally, sometimes even when we are unable to talk to them. Or when we treat them badly. I know that they sometimes feel alone, shut out and helpless. This book, I hope, will help them to feel less detached from their partners, and provide an insight into how we feel, what we share, how we think, our pain, and our thought processes. Not everything will be relevant, of course, but I hope there will be aspects that partners, parents and siblings are able to identify with.
You have written the book in a diary style. Please comment more about this style of writing and whether it allows us, as a reader, to get closer to you.
Initially the diary was just to help me process my own feelings and my circumstances. It wasn’t until some months into it that my close friends thought it could be something that could help other people. But in terms of the book, the entries are written in real time—day and night, with all times included. They are written at home, at work, on trains and buses. Before therapy and after therapy. After bereavements. When I was unwell, at varying levels of intoxication and various states of mental health. Times when I have been extremely unwell and vulnerable, and other times when I have been feeling much better. I have linked the present day to anecdotes and examples from my entire life to date, in an attempt to make it as real as I could. This book is me. It’s uncomfortable, it’s open and it’s honest. I’m baring my soul, and in this way, I hope to make a strong connection with my readers.
What do you think is the cause for most men’s mental health distress?
It is difficult to say, even more difficult to generalise. Relationship breakdowns, divorce and unemployment. I have experienced them all. The knowledge that you’re a public failure; and having to admit it. Showing any form of weakness. For me, success is to be proud of your life and your career. A part of that is money too. I don’t like that, but it is true. I don’t want to be rich, but I do want to be able to look after my wife and children. Telling your children that they can’t have a family day out because you don’t have the money is one of the most soul-destroying things I’ve ever had to say.
Tell us about fatherhood and functionality.
Fatherhood and functionality are not mutually exclusive. I have been a father through very challenging mental health conditions, when on many levels I was only existing, not functioning. I was able to complete tasks but for periods of time, have been emotionally disconnected from my wife and children. Mental health problems can entirely consume people and can cause you to completely lose sight of everything around you.
It goes without saying that I’ve been at my best as a father when my mental health has been most stable, and for the longest periods. But fatherhood and mental health wellness are both an ongoing journey. It is as if you have two separate but completely interconnected lives. Both need your total commitment and attention, both throw unexpected pressures and triggers, and both fill you with sadness and joy. For someone to function at their full capacity, both need to be going well. At least, that is my personal experience.