FEATURE: Talking Heads – encouraging men with mental health issues to open up

Craig Hanlon-Smith February 23, 2017

Just how honest can two men with mental health issues be? Through their new venture MenTalkHealth, local gents Damian Friel and Davey Shields certainly try to be just that. Craig Hanlon-Smith met up with them both to chat about their new venture.

Davey describes himself as a snowboarding, shirt lifting, media worker in his thirties, who has spent the last eight years trying to manage his diagnosis of depression and anxiety. Damian a twenty-five year old mental health nursing student and part-time barman from Derry in Ireland with a long-standing diagnosis of depression and anxiety, and more recently Tourette Syndrome and OCD. As a barman in local runaway success Bar Broadway, Damian is a familiar face in Brighton, not least of all following his appearances on TV discussing his mental illness and appearance on Channel 4’s First Dates.

The whole point of the podcasts, explained Davey is to get men talking about their own mental health and we felt the best way to do that was to share our own experiences, bring people on our journey as it happens and hopefully to find some humour in the darker moments.

We hope that the humour will be what does it Damian adds, that through listening to that and hopefully relating to it, men in particular will talk about their own experiences too. We want to break the stigma.

I suggest to Damian that breaking any kind of stigma is certainly no small task no but you have to start somewhere and were starting by challenging the stereotype that men shouldn’t cry for example, through to it’s ok for men to have mental illness and talk about it openly.

Davey goes on to say: We know that it works through my own experience. Talking through my own incidents of mental health, opening up to Damian, thinking about the humour in it all, making my experience funny – sort of makes what I went through worthwhile. And I can honestly say that whilst working on this, which enables me to talk and I can talk a lot, has in many ways started to make be feel better. We hope that translates to other people.

And indeed it does. Both Damian and Davey have received countless messages of support and honest feedback via social media specifically twitter. Including one from a former friend who now works with the police, sharing that he loved what they were doing and that in the workplace whilst it can be a struggle to get people to understand issues around mental health, the mixture [in the pod casts] of humour and reality could be a real help. Davey shares others include ‘Listening to your conversations helps me with mine’. And that’s what we want, to be a conversation starter to talk about mental health in a way that’s accessible.

Both men are clearly enthusiastic about the project from the moment we meet, chatting openly and at pace. We honestly believe that it makes the whole experience less scary using humour enthuses Damian, people feel at ease. Nowadays people find that humour can get them through adversity and really horrible illnesses such as cancer and we thought, why can’t it be the same with mental illness? We want to say it’s ok to talk about it. The difficulty can be that when you’re in the middle of your own symptomatic period that may not be the right time to discuss the issues. You can feel ashamed of how you’re feeling  – when you’re out of the woods, or when you listen to others, you can hopefully feel people will understand. That’s the idea.

The podcasts, and so far there are five in all, have a chatty, discursive feel, almost like a pub conversation with a friend and certainly have the effect of normalising the subject at hand. Damian tells me We felt after episode one that it was so discursive and chatty we had better drink less wine whilst recording the next two!  As the podcasts are centred specifically around men’s mental health, I am curious to hear about the inclusion of their friend Eli who has now made an appearance in all three encounters. It was our intention for Eli to drop in occasionally as she does in episode one, Davey says, but we had such great feedback about her involvement we asked her to do as many as possible.

Just talking about yourself and your own condition can get very insular Damian adds, but with Eli there she can ask questions or give a woman’s point of view. It’s also interesting that as Damian and Davey are both gay, Eli brings a heterosexual element to the podcasts in discussing her own relationship and boyfriend as part of the recorded episodes. Being two gay men, we’re already by default challenging that heteronormative stereotype, but we wanted a show for everyone and Eli helps us to achieve that Damian explains. My hope though is to have a broader listener base says Davey, yes to build on the support from the gay community first but the contact from the police for example, he’s straight and it appealed to him.

I ask them both why they think that incidents of mental health are so much higher in the LGBT+ community compared to our heterosexual equals. Whilst one in four heterosexual people are expected to develop some form of mental health episode, it is thought to be as much as three in four amongst the LGBT+ population.

Damian begins I think it all links to society at large. And whilst there are lots of everyday elements that now fall underneath the LGBT+ rainbow, we still have a long way to go in getting broader society to be more tolerant.  I suggest that living in the deep and darkest wilds of the UK may be a different experience than living in a large city and certainly Brighton. Yes but even here Damian passionately interjects, there have been homophobic attacks and there are slurs shouted at you which if you’re already verging on the vulnerable can impact on your self-esteem and worth. There’s potentially a lot up against you that many hetero people just won’t come up against – internalised homophobia for example.

I ask if either of them have ever had to access any of the voluntary mental health charities in Brighton both on and off the gay-scene. We’re massive fans of what they are doing and they have supported us on social media. And although neither of us has accessed their support directly Davey explains Anyone we know who has with says they are amazing at what they do.

So where to go from here boys? Will you bring in different people? Yes, definitely. Other people with different diagnoses to us but also  people who have looked after us, looking at the challenges of mental health support on those around us. Both have two best friends who have looked after them when they have been unwell. It’s important to look at the bigger picture, keep the conversation going.

All podcasts from MenTalkHealth can be found on iTunes or via SoundCloud.

For more information on the pair and their venture, click here: