County Durham project, ManHealth, is appealing for votes after reaching the finals of the 25th Birthday National Lottery Awards – the search for the UK’s favourite ever National Lottery-funded projects.
ManHealth is competing in the Best Community & Charity Project category. The project with the most votes will be crowned the winner and receive a £10,000 cash prize, an iconic National Lottery Awards trophy and attend a star-studded glittering awards ceremony to be broadcast on BBC One in November.
ManHealth is the idea of Paul Bannister, a former teacher who was inspired to set up the scheme after struggling with depression since childhood. “The initiative was motivated by a quite selfish purpose really. I was looking for some support for myself because my life was being made a misery by the ‘Black Dog’ I found there was a chronic lack of support both professional and non-professional for men who were in crisis.”
ManHealth is a network of support groups in North East England for men experiencing mental health issues. Facilitated by trained volunteers, the ManHealth groups are a safe space for men of all ages to talk openly about the challenges of anxiety and depression and other mental health conditions.
Paul was also horrified by the suicide rate for men in the North East of England, which is almost double the national average. “This project definitely wouldn’t have happened without Lottery money,” he says. “I wouldn’t say ManHealth it’s just changing lives, it is saving lives.”
Dave Spensley had suffered severe depression for decades, but the failure of the engineering firm he had owned for 35 years pushed him to the brink of suicide. “I was searching for help, but felt there was no one out there,” he says. “To say finding ManHealth saved my life would be an understatement.”
Dave, 52, from Willington in County Durham said: “I came to ManHealth about eight months ago when I was referred by my GP,” says Dave who has become a ManHealth Champion which enables him to support new members at the groups. David attends two groups each week in Spennymoor and Shildon, towns in County Durham. “It was difficult at first,” he says. “I was a very angry person because everyone wants a magic wand to put themselves right. What the group did for me is give me some self-belief and the sense I wasn’t alone. That’s where my recovery journey started and it’s getting better and better. I’m still here alive and that’s something I celebrate every day.”
His first step was to apply for an Awards for All grant from The National Lottery to fund a feasibility study. He used the money – £10,000 – to interview 90 men in the region who identified as struggling with depression to gauge the need for a network of support groups. Paul also worked with social enterprise experts at Manchester University to create a business plan.
Armed with hard evidence that men in County Durham suffering depression felt they would benefit from a peer support group, Paul went to The National Lottery Community Fund (formerly Big Lottery) seeking funding. In November, 2017 he was awarded £225,310 and the ManHealth project began in earnest.
The first ManHealth group was held in a community hall in Shildon on April 6, 2018. Paul had done some promotion on social media and local radio, but admits he had no idea if anyone would turn up.
“It was raining, so the odds were stacked against us,” he says. “But in the end about 12 guys came which was way beyond our wildest expectations.” We now see upwards of 100 men every week, 50 weeks of the year and they come back every week”.
Paul’s other concern was that the men who did attend the group would be reluctant to talk openly about their mental health. After all, the stereotype of the Northern man is a stoic, taciturn individual who is reluctant to discuss his feelings.
Once again, he was stunned by what happened within the “safe, non-judgemental” environment of the ManHealth group. Men who had lived with depression in silence for decades suddenly found themselves talking openly about their condition.
“One particular guy who comes to the group said he had kept it [depression] bottled up for 45 years,” says Paul. “Nowadays he looks like a different man – it’s as if a huge weight has been lifted from his shoulders. As soon as the guys walk through the door the safety of the non-judgemental environment we provide allows them to talk. There is also a commonality which is key as men instantly realise they are not alone but amongst other men who appreciate and understand their struggles.”
Each ManHealth group – there are seven up and running in the North East across County Durham, Northumberland and South Tyneside with another three on the way – is carefully structured. Led by a trained volunteer, the two-hour sessions focus on a different topic each week – everything from insomnia and grief, to diet and modern day masculinity – and the men are encouraged to follow the 5 Ways to Wellbeing Model.
The emphasis in every case is sharing information, although Paul makes it clear that “we’re not a professional service” and the sessions are about sharing ideas and strategies that may help them understand and deal with their condition a little better. Members are also referred to professional services and encouraged to make regular visits to their GP.
Another regular at the Shildon group is 50-year-old Jacques Decloquement, a removal driver from Spennymoor. He suffered severe depression prior to the birth of his third child when spiralling debt pushed him to the brink.
“We’re not professionals in the group but everyone speak from the heart, and the support in the groups is really powerful.” says Jacques, who has sorted out his own debts and now helps others in the ManHealth family to do the same.
What does the group give him? “I can talk to people and I can relate to them,” he says. “We support each other and we don’t hold anything back. If you sit down and talk about a problem in this group the man sitting opposite you might well have the same problem.”
ManHealth has evolved quickly. Although the meetings are held once a week, members are able to visit other groups on different evenings and can talk to each other at any time via a closed group on social media. “We’re constantly communicating,” says Paul. “If we haven’t seen someone for a few weeks we contact them via mobile SMS or email.” “We also organise events outside the group like walks or a meal. We are building life-long friendships from what was once loneliness.”
He acknowledges that not everyone is willing or able to attend a ManHealth meeting in person. As a result, he has obtained a second Awards for All grant of £10,000 to fund a pilot scheme called Men in Need. Acting on a referral – usually from a GP, mental health service or concerned wife or partner – two ManHealth volunteers visit a man suffering depression in their own home. The ultimate aim is to encourage them to attend one of the groups.
Wynn Glass, 59, is one of ManHealth’s most passionate ambassadors. “When I first came here I just used to cry as I told my story.” he says. “I had never been able to open up previously, but the love and support in these groups is really special. I can talk to every single one of these lads.”
More than 565,000 National Lottery grants have been awarded since 1994, the equivalent of around 200 life-changing projects in every UK postcode district helping to strengthen communities, deliver sporting success, protect the environment, unleash local creative talent and look after the elderly and those at risk. Since the National Lottery’s first draw took place on 19 November, 1994, more than £40 billion has been raised for good causes in the areas of arts, sport, heritage and community.
To vote for ManHealth visit: https://www.manhealth.org.uk and click through. You can also follow the campaign on Twitter: hashtag #NLAManHealth. Voting runs until midnight on 21 August.