Warning: This article references self-harm which some readers may find upsetting.
For more than a decade, Stuart Titchmarsh struggled every single day with his deteriorating mental health.
Moving away from his home in Morpeth for university and not wanting to worry his family and friends, Stuart kept everything inside – only finding he could cope using self-harm.
And without knowing he was on the autistic spectrum, managing mental wellbeing was that bit harder for Stuart.
“I lost 13 years of my life because I didn’t feel able to speak out about what I was going through,” said Stuart, now 27.
“I wasn’t coping at university but I kept it quiet because I was concerned about my parents being informed and worrying about me. I didn’t want to let anyone down.
“University was hard, because I was based down south, away from friends and family and I hadn’t – at that point – had a diagnosis of autism or any kind of mental health problem. All I knew was that I was struggling with life.”
Stuart eventually moved back to the North East, where he received a series of diagnoses that would change his life.
He said: “I was diagnosed with autism, chronic depression, generalised anxiety, an eating disorder and specific phobias, including emetophobia, which is an intense fear of being sick.
“Getting a diagnosis can be a double-edged sword because it definitely helps you to understand what’s happening and allows you to access support, but getting that support takes time and you can feel a little bit like you’re in limbo as you wait.
“With autism, you’re 40 per cent more likely to experience mental health problems, so there are probably many people out there going through what I went through.
“Before my diagnoses I was self-harming. It was the only coping strategy I had, the only way I could find some relief, but obviously it was very unhealthy and dangerous.
“When I finally got help, I learnt about various positive coping strategies, but having autism can cause difficulties in terms of how I manage my mental health problems.”
Alongside support from the NHS, Stuart was keen to get involved with Newcastle United Foundation’s Be A Game Changer campaign.
Newcastle United Foundation launched the Be A Game Changer campaign in February 2019 to encourage football fans to talk more openly about their mental wellbeing.
United by Newcastle United and a love for the beautiful game, the Foundation aims to get more men talking about how they are feeling, whether that is in the stands, at the pub or with their GP.
Stuart added: “This is why I am keen to support Newcastle United Foundation’s Be A Game Changer campaign.
“It really helps to talk to someone and to access the right support and, with the Foundation’s backing, the message that it’s OK to talk about mental health will reach many more people out in the community.”
Stuart has also found useful advice online via the growing Be A Game Changer Facebook community which includes more than 2,000 like-minded people.
Managed by the Foundation, the group encourages users to share and talk openly with others, while also enjoying fitness tips, NUFC-themed quizzes and online events.
With a strong support network behind him, including Be A Game Changer and the Bridge Project in Northumberland, Stuart feels able to explore different ways of reducing his feelings of anxiety beyond traditional methods such as mindfulness.
He said: “I find mindfulness difficult and it can make me feel more agitated and anxious. And then because I was struggling with it, I was putting pressure on myself to adopt it when it was obviously unsuitable for me.
“However, when I spoke to my support worker about this, they suggested looking at a more tailored form of mindfulness where, instead of focusing on my breathing, I focus on an object in the room. It takes the focus away from my body, which I find helpful.
“Saying that, it’s not a perfect coping strategy for me, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. So, I have to try to figure out what’s best for me at any one time.
“It’s good to access all these different kinds of support so it’s always worth speaking to a GP or someone else when you’re struggling and you’re not sure why.”
Within one year, more than 1.8 million people have been reached by Be A Game Changer on social media and more than 800 men are currently engaged with health and wellbeing activities, including walking football, over-40s NHS health checks, specific mental health sessions with MAN v FAT and the 12th Man programme.