Harry in a brain costumeImage by: Movember
2 November 2022

Harry’s story: Being a brain - for mental health

4 minutes read time

I first became involved in Movember running the 2021 Crystal Palace 5km, dressed as a giant blue brain to raise awareness for men’s mental health. I had just finished my third night shift in a HDU (high dependency unit) for COVID-19 patients. After work, I drove up the A3 with the blue brain strapped to the roof of my car and arrived at the race location, albeit half asleep.

Working on a COVID ward during the pandemic exposed me to a lot of raw emotion. I spent 12.5hrs a day dressed head to toe in PPE, caring 1:1 with critically-ill patients. There is little to no mental health support for a lot of front-line workers and the situations they experienced throughout the pandemic and in normal day to day runnings. We took on the emotions patients experienced and were often the last person they saw before they died.

I didn’t realise how being in that environment affected me until I left the ward to work in another department and was able to decompress. After this experience, I’ve learnt now more than ever how important it is to talk about your emotions, especially for men.

Nowadays, men talking about mental health is becoming more of the norm with leading organisations like Movember campaigning to break the stigma. However, growing up that wasn’t the case.

My own experiences of poor mental health have been difficult. After over a decade of unknowingly experiencing poor mental health, everything came to a head at university where I really spiralled. In 2016, I hit rock bottom and ended up spending the night in a psychiatric admissions unit. That was when I decided I needed to make a change and vowed to never end up in the same circumstances again. 

Making changes took a while, but I remember so clearly the day I made a vow to be honest about how I felt. It was early October 2017, the weather that morning and the few days previously had been particularly miserable. I had attended a lecture where the tutor announced the death of a fellow student by suicide. As I walked home, I noticed how the weather had changed from being grey and dreary in the morning to a beautiful autumn day, with clear sky and crisp fresh air.

" After opening up about how I felt and what I was going through I felt a huge weight was lifted. "

Since then, when I’m feeling down, I tell myself that mental health is like the weather; you get a run of rainy sh*t days for a bit, then as Annie says “the sun’ll come out” and things will feel better. For the first time in a while, I felt lucky to be alive and that I’d pushed through and could experience the beauty of that day. From that day forward I no longer wanted to waste my life and start about the changes I wanted to see in myself.

After opening up about how I felt and what I was going through I felt a huge weight was lifted. I’m now more open and honest about my past and the troubles I faced, in the hope that others feel comfortable to be honest about their mental health. Having open and honest discussions is the key to combatting mental health. The saying “a problem shared is a problem halved” is true. I only wish I’d figured this out sooner. I encourage these conversations as much as possible, with colleagues and friends that I know are comfortable with it. I ask how they’re really doing.

During my recovery I sampled many therapies and treatments but the most beneficial remedy for me has been exercise. After a good workout at the gym, I find myself in a meditative state, I feel weightless and peaceful. Training for and taking part in obstacle course races has given me a goal and something to look forward to and focus on. Earlier in the year I began training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I’ve learnt discipline, focus and dedication. When I’m on the mats, all the days stress dissipates. Off the mats, I’ve found a new confidence and deal with work stress better. I was born with neurofibromatosis type 1 so I had to have major spinal surgery aged seven. The physical results of the operation triggered me to suffer from low self-esteem, frustration, and body dysmorphia. The surgery restricts my mobility which adds an extra challenge to anything physical I do. Nevertheless, I love a challenge and later in the year I hope to compete in an able bodied Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu competition, with the hopes of a Para event in 2023. 

Both running and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu have been fundamental in my recovery. They allow me to exercise my physical and mental health in partnership and turn it into a more tangible and physical form. I have become aware of when things are starting to slide with my mental health and when to take time out to relax. Now, I run my mental illness away, instead of running away from it. The process has been long, and it is continuous. I’m by no means at the end, but I’m proud of how far I’ve come.