Man to Man: Why I’m on a mission to make men open up more with Talk Club
How are you? Out of 10? No seriously. Think about it. Take a few moments to put how you feel right now, right this second, into a number: 10 being the best day ever; one being awful.
So, what are you? Oh, you can’t have seven. When people say seven (a bit too quickly, I always find) they aren’t thinking about how they really are.
This question is the basis of Talk Club – a global mental-fitness movement, a talking and listening charity, that began in Bristol in 2019. And this is the story of how I became a CEO of a charity I didn’t mean to start.
Steve wasn’t a number. He was my friend.
Let’s begin with some facts. Statistically, the thing most likely to kill me – is me. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50 in the UK. That’s 14 men a day, 98 a week, one every 90 minutes.
One of those men was my childhood best friend, Steve Yates. Steve wasn’t a number. He was a father. A son. A husband. And a friend… My friend.
He was an everyday, funny, generous, lovely guy. The last person you’d have thought would kill himself. But that’s the point. You can’t always tell those who are struggling.
You can’t always tell those who are struggling
Throughout our teenage years, we were joined at the hip. You’d never see one of us without the other. We lived in each other’s pockets. We were brothers by another mother.
But as we grew older, and life got in the way – we began to drift. So, I only realized how bad his mental health really was when it was too late.
Steve had become so mentally unwell, that he thought the world was better off without him. Which of course is completely untrue.
I read the statistics and decided I needed to channel my grief
When Steve died, I – like many others left behind – blamed myself. Why did he feel this way? What could I have done differently? How could I have stopped him? I spent three years of therapy asking these questions and many more. And getting no answers.
Then I read those statistics and decided I needed to channel my grief. I knew that I couldn’t go back. I had to go forward. I needed to help the next Steve. To stop other families and friends feeling the way we did.
Around that time I came across an article that said men of my age watch sport and documentaries… So, I thought, that’s what I’ll do. I’ll make a film.
I decided to make ‘Steve’ – a positive documentary about male mental health
Steve is a positive documentary about male mental health. Real people. Real conversations. And most importantly real solutions. For a year, I traveled the up and down the UK talking to amazing people, learning why it’s happening and what we can do to stop it.
As I was making it, I began to realize that where I showed this film was almost as important as what was in it. I needed to go to where the men were. So, that’s what we did. We took it on a pub tour.
Premièring in Bristol in March, 2019, we did 49 screenings around the country before the Covid lockdown. Pubs, sports clubs, gyms, building sites – anywhere men were. From Aberdeen to Falmouth; from Coutts (where the Royals bank) to a Category B Prison.
Each one, very different. Each one, sparking open conversations. Each one, bigger than just the film.
Turning mental health awareness into mental health action changed my life
Personally, I found that pubs are the best. Yes, I know about the relationship between alcohol and depression. But men are in pubs. And when a man doesn’t feel pushed into talking, when he can just sit there and watch the film while cradling his pint, also watching others open up – at the end he might just say… “Yes, I feel that way, too.”
But once they are ready to open up, what then? This was the moment that changed my life. Where I could make a real difference. Turning mental health awareness into mental health action.
What if we looked at prevention. Catching men upstream – not waiting for them to be broken – before we try to fix them. Some mental health charities concentrate on those final moments of keeping people alive. But we all know prevention is better than a cure.
We know the need for good physical health. It works the same with mental fitness
This is where mental fitness comes in. Many men I talk to think that “mental illness” and “mental health” are the same thing. But if you compare it to your physical health, it seems to become much clearer.
We know the need to maintain good physical health, we’ve been taught that for years. It works the same with our brain.
Your brain is like a muscle – it needs help to get stronger and needs to be rested. So at Talk Club, we use the term “mental fitness” to help men maintain their mental health in the hope of avoiding – or ameliorating, at the very least – mental illness.
Today, Talk Club is a positive talking and listening community for men
Founded with five other people from the film, Talk Club was born. Today, it’s evolved into a positive talking and listening community for men – allowing them to open up, be vulnerable and get mentally fit. All by asking “How are you? Out of 10?” as a starting point.
Everyone’s number is different. Personal to them. One man’s five could be another man’s seven. It’s just a technique. A way to own your mental state. But it works.
In three short years since our creation, we now have 72 clubs around the world and we’ve created Talk & Move groups, such as Talk & Run, Talk & Football, Talk & Rugby and Talk & Skate.
We’ve also created TalkClub therapy. So, like a gym, no matter your mental health, we can help you get mentally fit. And if you get mentally injured. We can help with that, too.
We even created a non-alcoholic beer to get men talking in pubs
I think our success has been our simplicity. We are where men are. From creating a non-alcoholic beer called ‘Clearhead’ and a coffee to get men talking, to partnerships with Liam Gallagher and Tyson Fury, to show your heroes want to be mentally fit as well.
I believe that if Talk Club had existed 10 years ago, Steve would still be with us and I wouldn’t be writing this now. But I can’t go back. I can only go forward. I can only try to help the next Steve. So, how are you really – out of 10?
Man to Man is a SOLO series exploring male friendship and modern masculinity, delivered by different voices each month, including Ben Akers, founder of Talk Club and creator of the documentary Steve.
Flash Pack is on a mission to make 1 million friendships through shared group travel. Few groups need those connections more than men in their 30s and 40s. Find your pack today.
Images: Ben Akers / Talk Club