‘We stop people killing themselves’

This article was taken from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-49485480

Suicide is the single biggest killer of males under the age of 45 and, across the whole of the UK, men are three times more likely than women to kill themselves.

To mark World Suicide Prevention Day 2019, BBC Scotland has spoken to three men in very different walks of life who are trying to turn the tide on the frontline of men’s mental health.

None claim to be mental health experts but they all say they are making inroads, one conversation at a time.

The barber

“I am quite open about my mental health and people are sometimes shocked,” says 27-year-old barber Tommie McGuckin.

“They look at your Instagram and think it is all parties and unicorns but nobody’s actual life is always like that.”

Tommie is an ambassador for the Lions Barber Collective, a network of British barbers who have come together to create safe places for men to open up and raise awareness of suicide prevention.

He says: “There is a special bond between a man and his barber. A man will tell his barber things he wouldn’t tell his best friend or his wife but it is rare for someone to sit down in your chair and get straight to the chase.

“I find it is more about noticing the smaller things, that somehow today they seem a bit different and you can’t put your finger on it, it’s more the idiosyncrasies.”

Working at the fashionable Hard Grind barbers in Dundee, a tattoo-heavy totem of the city’s renaissance, Tommie and his team make it known to their clients that they’re there to listen and cut hair – in that order.

Tommie, who lives with bi-polar disorder, has noticed a big difference in the decade he has been a barber.

“I think guys will open up way more now, even if it is in a laddy way, they can put across they are not happy about something,” he says.

“People hide their pain behind laughter in lots of walks of life but guys will come in here and be who they want to be.

“It’s different to in the pub with their mates, where if they want to open up about something there is a possibility of ridicule, even if that is just how your pals deal with everything.”

Tommie says the goal of the Lions Barber Collective is to “smash the taboos and cut through the macho crap” around male suicide and it’s for one reason – “not talking about male mental health is literally killing people”.

The prison officers

Alex McClintock was minutes from taking his own life when his daughter phoned to say she loved him.

“That stopped me and I’ve been trying to build things skyward ever since,” he says.

The 45-year-old prison officer, who was first diagnosed with depression when he was barely out of his teens, was scrambling for something to unlock his own struggles when it arrived in the form of Andy’s Man Club.

The peer-to-peer support group for men was set up by former rugby league player Luke Ambler after the death of his 23-year-old brother-in-law Andy Roberts in 2016.

Initially only in the north of England, the weekly talking group network has spread across the UK.

Alex, along with fellow prison officer Adam Allison, helped to bring it to Scotland and they started at their workplace, HMP Perth.

“It started with six people turning up and now we regularly get 20 a week, all through word of mouth in the prison,” says Alex.

“You get a lot of them saying I want to share something but I don’t know what it is, and that is fine. It tends to come with time and confidence.”

Alex says he feels like a proud parent now that his group facilitate their own meetings.

Alex and Adam help run a string of community-based clubs too and they say the only difference between the two is the bars on the windows.

“You could bring the community group into this prison for a meeting and you would get the same responses or conversations,” Alex says. “We’re all human but we all wear masks so when they come off, whether in here or out in the community, there is not much between us all.”

“The group has become a huge part of my recovery and the guys are the same, if you miss a meeting you notice the difference,” Alex adds.

“We stop people killing themselves, I am sure of it, but the impact is not instant, you need keep the conversations going or people can slip.”

‘This club has changed my life’

One man who is almost evangelical about the difference Andy’s Man Club has made is former soldier Lindsay Rodger.

Lindsay, who served with the Black Watch and the Special Forces, was sent to Perth prison earlier this year after a drink-fuelled catalogue of crime, which included attacking seven police officers.

The 37-year-old can see his Perth home from the windows of the jail but for now he is concentrating on dealing with the issues that took him behind bars.

“This club has changed my life” he says. “I describe it as like a pressure cooker and every meeting, every conversation, you take the pressure down a notch.”

Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, Lindsay said he spent too long self-medicating with alcohol instead of dealing with the mental health issues that stemmed from his tours of Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It is such a release,” he says. “The people around you might have different stories but it is the same feelings or doubts. “To hear that come out of someone else’s mouth is powerful, you know it is not just you.”

The church minister

“I’m a bit like Forrest Gump,” chuckles the Reverend Chris Blackshaw, ensconced on a wooden bench by the bustling auction hall of Ayr’s livestock market.

“I just sit on this bench, someone will come and sit down, chat for a bit and then someone else comes along.”

The Church of Scotland’s first ever dedicated farming minister, Mr Blackshaw says his mission is simple – to listen.

The 58-year-old farmer spent the first half of his life as a police officer in Derbyshire in what he says turned out to be a great training for this gig.

Mr Blackshaw says there have been four suicides in the space of nine months in the Ayrshire farming community and it has concentrated minds about looking out for friends and family.

“Usually the conversation is about farming, you have that first, but sometimes they go on to how they are feeling,” he says.

“Often you just need to get them going and it will flood out. There is no mystery to this, with the vast majority of people all they want is just someone to talk to. The devastation left behind [from suicide] is usually behind closed doors in the farming community but it is brutal, and we all need to do more to stop this.”

Mr Blackshaw’s credibility as what he calls a “human sponge”, with an often conservative farming community in Ayrshire, stems from his own farming background. He owns a 20-acre cattle and pig farm in Cumbria, run by his wife Jan.

“Farming can be very rewarding but it is hard life and often very isolating, miles from other people,” he says.

“I have met vets who have told me that they often go back to farms, not to look at the animals but to make sure the farmers are okay.”

Mr Blackshaw’s home visits are often the result of a quiet word from a worried friend or neighbour, but he says he treads lightly.

He says: “I am welcomed on to farms where they openly say they don’t believe in God but say ‘will you come back and see me?’ That is brilliant, they take me as I am and that means a lot to me.

“I had a home visit last week, a farmer who has a little bit of depression, and he really humbled me, he said ‘you will never understand how much your visits mean to me’.”