It’s Time to Talk – Mental Illness: A Common Opponent

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I’ve always been a talker, for as long as I can remember. Talk a glass eye to sleep I could. If it came into my head then, more often than not, it would fall out of my mouth in pretty short order. It’s fair to say that this characteristic hasn’t always been appreciated as countless school reports – and hundreds of ‘I must not talk in class’ lines – would attest to.

As I’ve aged – sorry, matured – I’ve learned when it’s best to talk and when it’s best to stay silent; well, for the most part anyway.

Today, it’s time to talk.

February 2nd 2017 is Time to Talk Day, a campaign ran by the charity Rethink Mental Illness to encourage more people to speak out and challenge the stigma that surrounds mental illness.

I’m lucky, I can talk. I can also write, and I am thankful that I can use my voice and my own terribly challenging experiences of mental ill health to help others to realise that they are not alone, that it is possible to not only recover from mental illness but to thrive in a life enhanced by the lessons that only struggle and overcoming life’s toughest challenges can provide.

I’m lucky. Not only can I use my experiences to help others in my personal life, I’m also able to do so in my professional life. Boxing is my passion and I’ve been fortunate enough to make it my career, and, since the Government’s new strategy for sport highlighted the role of sport in addressing mental health, I have been given the opportunity to tackle mental health in my job.

This year Time to Talk Day is focusing on those that are least likely to admit that they are struggling and to get the help they need. Yep, that will be us men then. It’s doing so in a unique way by encouraging men to look out for and support each other, in recognition of the added stigma men seem to feel in admitting to what they can perceive as ‘weakness’, and in asking for help.

In my professional role I will be using Time to Talk Day to encourage the boxing community – which has itself seen some very high profile boxers publicly admit to their mental health struggles – to recognise the reality of mental illness and to know that it can affect any one of us, no matter how big and tough we may be, and that there is no shame in that.

I have written a post for England Boxing’s website that will be published on Time to Talk Day and I would like to share it here on my blog, for I believe that the messages it contains go beyond boxing.

Boxing is a great metaphor for life and for struggle and as such it can speak to all of us. In particular the lessons it holds for men, that even the biggest and strongest of men can be knocked down in the ring and in life, can help us to see that there is no shame in suffering, no shame in being hurt, and that even when we are down and the referee is counting over us, we can rise and be victorious.

 

A Common Opponent

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A gallery of champions, different weights, different eras, but all sharing a common opponent.

An opponent so fierce as to bring each of these formidable gladiators to their knees in a way that no man ever could. An opponent unrelenting and unpitying in his attack, with no respect for reputations, with no regard for lavish lifestyles and amassed fortunes; a gatecrasher of successful lives that can convince even the wealthiest of men that none of it is worth living for.

Ladies and gentlemen, in the red corner, introducing mental illness.

A common opponent.

25% of adults experience a mental health problem in any year, that’s one in four of us. Mental illness doesn’t discriminate, it can visit any of us at any time as the gallery of champions illustrates, and yet 31% of men surveyed said that they would be embarrassed to seek help for a mental health problem.img_1470Many fear that mental illness is nothing of the sort, that it is a weakness, not an illness.

Look again at the gallery above. Many words may come to mind, weakness isn’t one of them. Just as the toughest of boxers are knocked down in the ring, so too can the toughest of us be beaten down by life sometimes. And just as a boxer’s legs may betray him after taking a heavy shot, sending him to the canvas no matter how much his will implores him to stand, so too can mental illness bring any of us to our knees, regardless of how strong we are and how hard we fight.

Why does this matter? In 2014 male suicide accounted for 76% of all suicides and was the single biggest cause of death in men under the age of 45 in the UK. Sadly, boxing hasn’t been exempted and in recent years some much loved boxing figures have tragically been lost to suicide. Mental illness kills. And the fear of admitting to struggling with mental health prevents people, and young men especially, from seeking the help that they need.

Boxing is a tough sport. Boxers are tough people. Admitting that you are struggling is tough. Admitting that you are hurt is tough. Indeed, it can go against everything that a boxer is taught; when a referee asks a boxer whether they are able to continue you know what the answer is going to be, regardless of how badly hurt he may be.

But sometimes he needs to be rescued from his own bravery in battling against a relentless opponent alone. Sometimes a cornerman needs to step in, to put an arm around his shoulder and reassure him that it’s just not his night. Sometimes the boxer needs help to admit that he needs to rest and recover before he is able to come back stronger and better than before.

Sometimes he just needs to know that somebody has his back, that somebody can see he is struggling and can say, “I got you mate.”

This is why England Boxing is backing Time to Talk Day on 2nd February 2017. Time to Talk Day aims to encourage more people to talk about mental health, to end mental health discrimination and to enable more people to feel that they can seek the help they need.

It can be hard for people to admit when they are struggling, but all of us can look out for our mates and show them that we’re there for them. We can all be in someone’s corner when they need us. We don’t need to be experts, we don’t need to be able to solve all of their problems, sometimes they just need to know that we are there.

By doing so we can all help to overcome the common opponent of mental illness, an opponent that thrives on silence and the fear of being admitted to, preventing people from reaching out and seeking the help that they need.

So look out for your mates, be in their corner. You might just be the difference that helps them to win the biggest fight of their lives.

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For more information on mental health please visit:

Rethink Mental Illness: http://www.rethink.org

Mind: http://www.mind.org.uk

If you or someone you know would like to talk to somebody in confidence The Samaritans are available to call for free, 24 hours a day, on 116 123.

Soundtrack:
Ben E King – Stand By Me

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