Man stood outside barbershop
Henry, In The Barber ChairImage by: Robin Boot Photography
Man stood outside barbershop
3 May 2022

Henry's story: what I learnt from 30 conversations about mental health

Mo Bro
Henry Zeris
9 minutes read time

"Last Movember I spoke to a different man about mental health every day for a month. The process was anonymous, talking to some for 20 minutes about issues that hadn’t affected us; other days, chats lasted 2 hours about very personal journeys people had been through. Everyone’s experiences were different, but one thing I learnt is that so many things are more universal than we think: we all want to be happy, we all have our battles with mental health issues, whatever they may be.

In England, around 1 in 8 men have a common mental health problem such as depression, anxiety, panic disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder and these are only those diagnosed. Statistics such as 75% of suicides in 2017 were men in the UK and only 36% of referrals to the NHS for therapy are for men would suggest we do not talk about mental health enough. My aim was to get people talking about mental health more casually and to learn about people’s experiences and the way they view mental health.

" one thing I learnt is that so many things are more universal than we think: we all want to be happy, we all have our battles with mental health issues, whatever they may be. "

For me, 2020 was one of the worst years of my life. I couldn’t tell you why. I don’t blame Covid for it. I think it was a build up of problems that I hadn’t addressed. By December, I drank way too much, I was grumpier than usual. It took conversations with the university welfare team, friends and finally parents to take the first steps to trying to feel better. This article is not being written by someone who now has everything figured out – I am far from it and still do struggle with my mental health at times. This is not me writing about what habits are good or bad, what is true or false, it is simply a recount of what I’ve learnt from this entire experience. Of course, I cannot talk about everyone’s experiences that I spoke to, but interesting patterns in the way people talk about mental health did crop up.

People talked about opening up in similar ways: of breaking down a wall or barrier; of opening a door. One image that stood out to me was when one person spoke of it as a jar: “Once you open up, it’s a jar that cannot be closed, you instantly feel more comfortable talking about your feelings”. All these actions described are ones of liberation, a release from whatever was pent up. It is scary to open up for the first time, but he was right to say you begin to feel more comfortable talking about your feelings. Once you have done it, it becomes easier simply because you know you have done it before.

Yes, it is an obvious point that talking about our feelings is generally a good thing. However, one question that does draw a lot of anxiety for some is simply wondering “who do I turn to?” The majority of people I spoke to initially voiced a concern that they did not want to worry others, or to put their problems onto someone else. Often there was a desire to have an aspect of mutual trust, with one person voicing that “If you open up to me, I know I can to you” or vice versa sort of mentality. One stated how “honesty breeds more honesty”, another similarly shared his belief that “trust comes from a mutual surrendering” to one another. Ultimately, we open up to those we feel comfortable around. There was a reluctance in some men I asked about how likely they would open up, with a lot talking about not wanting to put a burden on their friends. However, it is not a weight to be placed elsewhere, but a release.

Often when these things remain held in, it can be harder to open up – the lid can become tighter. Multiple people admitted that when a friend had opened up they had not really seen it coming. In more serious cases, holding these things in can be too late, with one saying how they weren’t aware of their uncle’s mental health until he had taken his life during the first lockdown. In other cases that I heard,lots of men only opened up when they themselves were at their lowest, whether that was self-harm, overdosing, or severe panic attacks. “We need to look after each other”, one of my friends said, “it’s as simple as that” — there is a communal aspect to looking after ourselves. Those that we feel comfortable talking to simply want the best for us.

It is also not just a question of should we open up and who to, “but how you talk about your emotions” that is important, one friend said. How we articulate our emotions can take practice. It is easy to accept that talking helps, but it isn’t a matter of talking about how the football game was that week, but rather to ask the more meaningful questions, or bring up what is on your mind. We live in a time where mental health conditions are much more defined, but that by no means makes them any easier to necessarily handle. With everyone I spoke to, it became clear our mental health has a longevity to it, as something to be worked on everyday.

“You get out what you put into your mental health” one stated. Another spoke of the process of managing their mental health as if you were building a house: “we all build a house differently, the scaffolding of it are all our individual methods”. He spoke of how these parts consist of the little wins, those routines and support networks that are crucial to keep the house standing. One word that turned up in a large number of my conversations was the need to “reset”, to do something that takes your mind off things, feel more grounded, or gain a more distanced perspective on what is bothering you. For many, there seemed to be a power in the routines, whatever they may be.

It is sometimes hard to have patience with these routines. For ourselves more than anyone. It is harder because we are probably our biggest critics. We know ourselves the most: we know what we are, what we are not, we know the thoughts we have, we remember our countless actions and thoughts that, to us, are examples of exactly who we are. It is so easy to view self-criticism as part of our identity, and it becomes harder to overcome – we imbed these ideas as part of our story. But, taking a step back – whether that is by doing something that makes you feel grounded or speaking to someone – we can begin to realise these negative aspects we see in ourselves don’t have to have such a hold over us.

There is a strength in opening up. There is nothing to be ashamed of in one’s mental health struggles. Yes, the level of severity may differ from each person, but everyone comes to face challenges, the most we can do is listen and try and understand with no judgement. Granted, we don’t always know what to say. Part of that is how we get better at looking after others, for many, it is simply knowing you have people around you that support you. Redefining what it means to be strong to children is just one aspect. Not in a physical sense, not dealing with things completely independently. One person when I asked about the stigma surrounding therapists said how “people have a personal trainer for the gym, what is the difference for a therapist — they’re like a personal trainer for the mind”. Strength lies in honesty – with others and ourselves– in opening up, and in helping others. Yes, this is crucial for a future generation that is even more vulnerable to social media, but it also starts with us.

I learnt from every single one I spoke to. As I began writing this, perhaps even as I started to think about how I may write this, I realised that my intention on writing about mental health was not only to affect others, but also, and I admit this shamelessly selfishly, myself. I cannot stress enough after this experience how important talking about mental health is. Talking about things in a casual, yet serious way has allowed me to take on my own issues so much more constructively; words like “anxiety” and “depression” have less of a hold over you and you gain new ways of seeing things by talking to others."

I asked all thirty people if they could give a few words of advice or support to someone struggling with their mental health, in whatever form that may be. Below are those thirty responses:

  1. Appreciate those around you and yourself and get outdoors – it helps more than you’d think.
  2. The storm is not here to stay, it is here to pass.
  3. You’re not alone, it may feel like it sometimes, but you are not.
  4. The chances you can give yourself are infinite. And stop complaining, do something about it and you’ll be happier.
  5. When in, or coming out of, low periods, have honest conversations with yourself to find what really helps you: we’re all unique and other people’s advice is just that.
  6. Even when you are low, if you can understand that it is momentary, and that it may be a lesson/building block for the future, then you are already better than you think.
  7. Look around, look up.
  8. Build a healthy lifestyle in as many different ways as possible: look after the mind and look after the body for a solid foundation.
  9. It’s very important not to retreat into your own head. Whilst there are many virtues in quiet self-reflection, at other times it is very important to find someone who you can confide in, who you feel might be able to relate to you. Your real friends will genuinely want to hear from you rather than just waiting for their turn to speak.
  10. Remember that all things will pass, and that once you’ve been through a rough time once you’ll know that you can and will do it again.
  11. An uncomfortable conversation is sometimes all that’s needed to take a step in the right direction.
  12. Your physical and mental health are closely interlinked; looking after one is bound to protect the other.
  13. Everyone’s challenges may be different but the concept of facing a challenge is common to us all. Don’t be afraid to discuss your challenges, anything which is capable of discussion will feel less overwhelming and more manageable.
  14. Mental health struggles are not uncommon, but the solution is different for everyone. Keep searching for what works for you, and you’ll find your way to cope and live with it. There is always a solution, and your friends will always help while you find yours.
  15. We don’t always know how someone is feeling, it is more about making sure someone knows that you’re there for them that is important.
  16. IDLES (‘Television’): “If someone talked to you the way you talk to you, I’d put their teeth through. Love yourself.”
  17. Life has its ups and downs but it only has the downs because you realise how good life can be.
  18. Life is short. May as well enjoy it while you can. Have as much fun as possible.
  19. Things always look up in the end. Whatever the issue, talk to someone. You’ll be worth their time.
  20. Life moves on. What feels terrible today, won’t feel so terrible over time. Change tack.
  21. Appreciate the little wins going on in your life, appreciate those around you and let them know.
  22. Being able to open up to someone requires effort on both ends. Being there for your friends to talk to makes the reverse action much less daunting.
  23. Time heals all.
  24. Remember remember the force of Movember, So if you’re having a mare, The boys are always there. A lot of feelings are internal,But with the boys they’re not eternal. Swear.
  25. “Life is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be experienced” – Soren Kierkegaard
  26. Trust you cannot force but you will have it in at least somebody.
  27. Force yourself out of bed, swap your joggers for jeans and find anyway you can to empower yourself.
  28. Do something new, make an active effort to smile today and see how the day goes.
  29. Don’t be so tough on yourself, be honest and kind to yourself.
  30. You can show resilience in your openness – there’s a strength in owning up to how you feel.

Head here if you're feeling low or overwhelmed, or if you need help navigating a chat with someone who might be struggling.