Middlesbrough has the highest suicide rate in England, at almost double the national average. Almost three quarters of those who take their own lives in the town are men. Charity Men Tell Health is trying to combat these statistics through conversation and coffee.
‘Either it was get help or it was attempted suicide’
Bullied at school, 28-year-old Danial Shaw said he used to just take menial jobs “because I never valued myself anything higher”.
At his lowest point, Danial called the Samaritans from the roadside.
This led him to seek counselling and further support from Mind, and he got involved with Men Tell Health six months ago.
The charity holds “SpeakEasys” in coffee shops around Middlesbrough – which have been set up to encourage men to talk about their problems.
Danial said: “There’s a weird shared connection you have, and empathetic connection, and that made a big difference for me.
“It built my confidence up over time.”
‘It’s all right to be fed up’
“With the suicide rate, if we save eight people then that will be within the national average,” says Dan Briggs, who is the charity’s director of services.
“They’re not just a number, they are real people who we can do something about.”
Dan, 45, has suffered with depression for 20 years, and said his first breakdown happened around the time his dad was diagnosed with lung cancer and the financial impact of being made redundant began to hit.
“Sometimes you don’t need an answer. I’m not looking for an answer off someone, I’m looking for someone to go ‘It’s all right to be fed up, it’s all right to feel like that.’
“Probably the thing that helped me the most was accepting that I had an illness and it was fine that I had that illness.”
‘We give men the right environment to speak’
Men Tell Health actually started life as a blog about Gary Pollard’s experience of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Gary met Dan while they were taking part in a research study at Teesside University on mental health, and came up with the “simple” idea of getting men together for a cup of coffee.
More than 150 men are now involved, although no-one is pressured to speak.
Gary said: “Men go to the pub and talk about football but don’t actually sit down and talk.
“We kind of do things that are revolutionary but they shouldn’t be. We’re talking nonsense half the time.
“Sometimes it can take a few sessions for them to open up, but they do.
“We know it’s not easy for the NHS – with funding issues and waiting lists. We have to change the way we do it.
“We’re showing we are different and doing it differently.”
Mental health in Middlesbrough
Middlesbrough had the worst suicide rate out of 152 local authorities
59 suicides in Middlesbrough from 2014 to 2016
73% of those were men
18.3 people per 100,000 took their own lives in Middlesbrough, compared to a national average of 9.9
Across the country, the biggest killer of men under 45 is themselves, and the suicide rate in Middlesbrough is almost double the national average.
Gary said: “There’s not one reason that Middlesbrough has the highest suicide statistics – we have the highest of pretty much anything in Middlesbrough – cancer, obesity, drugs, alcohol.
“The industrial background of the area has a part to play,” added Dan.
“I was a plater by trade in the oil rig yards working with 3,000 blokes. They didn’t even have female toilets.
“A lot of men have grown up working in those environments – where men are men and in that environment you wouldn’t feel OK to talk.
“People think ‘I shouldn’t be feeling like this’ because they have a job, a car, a house, a family.”
‘As men you’re supposed to be strong’
Police officer Richi Wells, 43, went to the Stockton group for the first time in April.
“As men you’re supposed to be strong, you’re supposed to be the support of everything and you just keep going until it gets too tough.
“It’s good when you’ve got a group of people who’ve been through similar or even worse things than yourself and you can just sit there and have a laugh with each other.
“And all of a sudden someone will say ‘When this happened to me, this is how I dealt with it’.
“It’s not embarrassing either – you’re just going into a cafe. I think it’s a good environment for chatting.”
‘Suddenly I wasn’t overwhelmed’
John Gray, 43, has struggled with depression since being diagnosed with ME in his mid-20s and was the first member of the Stockton group.
“I felt so much better at the end of it and it was mainly because I felt hopeful,” he said.
“I hadn’t solved any of my problems because that’s not what it’s about.”
He said he felt “overwhelmed” with life before attending, and after the group “suddenly I wasn’t overwhelmed anymore”.
The Men Tell Health groups take place in Off The Ground Coffee in Middlesbrough, Labyrinth Holistic Cafe in Stockton, Minto Hobo in Yarm and Costa Coffee in Redcar. If you are affected by these issues please contact the Samaritans on the free helpline 116 123, or visit the website.