Battling Depression with Unlikely Weapons

Battling Depression
(Image credit: Unknown)

There’s growing recognition of the toll depression can take on men, but before we tell the stories of men who have found techniques and activities that helped them, Jane Powell, chief executive of CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably), the charity dedicated to preventing male suicide, explains why “manning up” is not a solution.

Taking the First Step

Men are subject to the same problems as women, such as break-ups, health and money worries and media pressure to look good and be successful. “But when things start to go wrong for men, people tell them to, ‘man up,’ or, ‘deal with it’,” she explains. “Society’s expectation is that they’ll be strong and silent. The result is that many unhappy men are angry and frustrated – they either lash out or withdraw and drink alcohol to damp down their feelings.”

However, it’s vitally important when life looks bleak, Powell emphasises, to tell someone else what you’re going through in order to gain perspective. “It’s helpful to hear that what you’re feeling is actually pretty common,” she says. “It’s fine to seek help – it’s not a judgement of you or your value.”

CALM runs a confidential helpline (open from 5pm till midnight seven days a week) on 0800 58 58 58 for nationwide calls and 0808 802 5858 for London.

Ollie Aplin, 30, uses journalling

Battling Depression

(Image credit: Unknown)

Ollie Aplin didn’t have an easy childhood. His mum, a single parent, suffered from bipolar disorder and life at home was often chaotic and unpredictable. On several occasions she tried to kill herself.

By the time Aplin was 15, he was suffering from anxiety and panic attacks but refused help, believing that discussing his family problems would be betraying his mother.

Tragically, when he was 19, she succeeded in taking her own life. Not long afterwards, Aplin found himself in the grip of a complete mental and emotional breakdown.

“It was the strangest, most terrifying experience of my life,” he explains. “I woke up in the middle of the night and sat bolt upright with a panic attack. But it wouldn’t shift,” he continues. “I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I would break down in tears and I was having hallucinations. I thought I had lost my mind.”

Finally, he sought help from a counsellor that, he says, changed his life. Not only did the therapist listen to him and help him make sense of what he had been through, but she also introduced him to journalling.

More than keeping a diary, journalling is about documenting your feelings as a way of understanding yourself better. Aplin, who lives in Brighton, found the practice so helpful that he continues it to this day.

“The first time I tried it, I didn’t know what to write about and I sat there in front of a blank page,” he admits. “The counsellor helped me work out what to ask myself and gave me a list of emotions to help me choose a topic.”

Keen to encourage others to take it up, Aplin, a graphic designer, has developed his own workbook-style journal for men that is for sale online. Thirty tasks of differing intensity such as, “What Are Your Goals?” or, “Write a Letter to a Loved-One”, show tentative journallers how they might begin to connect with their own feelings.

“Journalling is a way of keeping myself on track,” he concludes. “I would say to other men, if you don’t want to buy a journal, go and get a cheap pad from the supermarket. It’s worth a go.”

Rafe, 38, uses equine assisted psychotherapy

Rafe has suffered from bi-polar disorder for more than half his life, a mental health condition characterised by extreme “highs” and “lows”. In his darkest moments, he tried to kill himself.

Happily, these days his life is on an even keel – he is due to get married next year. He has been helped in part, he says, by psychotherapy and medication, though at times he felt like a guinea pig as doctors experimented with different drugs and dosages.

However, 18 months ago, he came across Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) which, he says, is undoubtedly the best treatment he has ever received. EAP is a practice where a client is encouraged to interact with a horse in a variety of ways. This happens under the supervision of a horse expert and a mental health practitioner. No riding is involved.

The theory is that because horses are sensitive to human emotions, they can mirror a person’s behaviour and highlight problems. These issues are then talked over with the psychotherapist with the aim of finding ways of coping with life.

“I’ve always loved being around horses but working with them in this way adds another dimension,” Rafe, who lives in Sussex, comments. “It’s difficult to explain how or why it works but it’s magical. It’s somehow like having a creature looking into your soul.

“Horses don’t care what car you drive or what house you live in, they will just be there for you, he continues. “It’s like having someone there to hold your hand. Part of getting better is having a sense of control and finding ways to help yourself,” he concludes, “though it takes time to get to that point. Talking about how you feel is the most important factor.”

Jake McManus, 43, uses climbing

To outside onlookers, electrician Jake McManus has everything going for him. Happily married with two grown-up children, he has a good social life, a mortgage and his own business.

But despite this, he has struggled with feeling low for most of his life, set in motion, he believes, by the death of his mother when he was a child. And although he has had help on-and-off from psychologists over the years, the sadness would never quite shift.

“I think because I hadn’t found anything to make me feel more positive, I just went on collecting issues over the years,” he comments.

McManus, who lives in Wigan, hit his lowest period in 2009 when a good friend committed suicide. Life became even more stressful as the recession hit and work started to dry up, leaving him anxious that he might lose his house.

“I began to question my existence and I was finding it hard to leave the house,” he says. “At times, I was delusional. I even thought my dog was out to get me!”

But then, on a family holiday to Andalusia in Spain for his fortieth birthday, he got talking to some other holidaymakers who told him the area was good for rock climbing. A few weeks later he returned to try it for himself and spent four hours clambering up a mountain.

“I sat there at the top in complete disbelief that I had made it,” McManus remembers. “At that moment, something clicked. I knew climbing would help me.”

Part of the appeal, he believes, is that when someone is climbing, they are absorbed in the moment, using their whole body and all their senses. Afterwards, they are tired, hungry and either exhilarated or disappointed, depending on how the climb has gone, leaving little room to dwell on their worries.

McManus now climbs as often as he can and has set up a website to promote mental health and adventure to others. “You might have problems, but you still need to try and have fun. You need to have a laugh,” he advises.

John, 58, uses drumming

“Five years ago, I hit a wall,” says John, an artist and workshop facilitator. “My father-in-law, who I was close to, died. I couldn’t sleep, I had mood swings and some days, I couldn’t get out of the front door because I was overwhelmed by all the things I needed to do.”

His GP diagnosed anxiety and depression and sent him to a therapy group, which, John says, helped. He also went for individual help from a private psychiatrist who prescribed medication.

“I came to realise that I’d been suffering from these conditions all my life, probably triggered by my dad dying when I was seven,” he explains. “Looking back, I could see many other times when I had, ‘hit a wall’.”

John, who lives in Lancashire, also joined a local community drumming class, which he found enormously helpful. Rhythm was part of his make-up – he’d bashed pots and pans as a young child and had been a drummer in rock bands on-and-off for most of his adult life – yet something about drumming with other people, he felt, encouraged healing.

“People talk about the energy release of drumming and that is certainly part of it,” he concedes. “But there’s something more mysterious than that in a group. I think humans have an in-built, primitive need to drum and it connects people on a very deep level. Now, if I don’t do drumming on a regular basis, the tension builds up.”

John now works as a facilitator himself, helping to run a Lottery-funded project entitled, “Drum Your Way Out of Depression”. Participants play together on African-style drums and use small percussion items like cymbals and bells.

“People worry about getting the beat ‘wrong’ but that’s not possible,” he says. “Everyone finds their own rhythm and slots in. It helps you feel part of the world.”

For information on Drum Your Way Out of Depression, see