As a young pup, Soho in London was my playground. I found myself amongst a motley crew of young Galahds who played until dawn most days. Much fun was had by all. And I mean, much. Looking back, every moment seemed to be filled with laughter. Raucous, hilarious, mischievous evenings that still bring a smile to my face decades later. Carefree young things we were. So it hit all of us like a ton of bricks when one of our gang, Dennis, the one who shone brightest with the loudest laugh and the biggest smile, decided to take his own life.
There were no signs. I mean none. I had never even seen him frown, let alone indicate that there were obviously elements of his life that he found unbearable. We all froze in disbelief. As the years rolled on, and we have seen each other’s lives unfold, it became apparent we were all dealing with our own personal struggles at the time. I can see clearly now that we all fell under the classic clown syndrome. Wanting to make others laugh, while silently weeping on the inside.
Men in particular find it hard to talk openly about their emotions. And having lived in Malta for over a decade now, I see even more reserved behaviour amongst the male population here than in the UK. And if you find this hard to believe, the statistics aid me in my observations. In the UK around seventy-five percent of suicides are male, in Malta it is even higher, reaching nearly ninety percent. The fact that women are more likely to suffer from mental health issues makes this statistic all the more shocking in my mind. Perhaps it is due to the simple fact that women find it easier to talk about their emotions, and therefore feel they have the support they need and feel less alone in their struggles.
Luckily today, mental health awareness is far more prominent than when Dennis and I used to screech through Soho tumbling out of bars as the sun rose. Many employers are now given training in how to spot certain issues, and how to deal with them. But what about our friends and family? I have struggled with mental health issues since my early teens, and just like Dennis, my friends and family were the last to know. Looking back, the signs were there, but the conversation was obviously too painful for either side to initiate.
I urge all of you reading this to be vigilant. Don’t assume the smiles and laughter coming your way are true representations of the person you see. One major difference I see between the UK and Malta is in the size of friendship groups. In the UK they tend to be smaller, and maybe as a result, more closely knit. In Malta, I see many people with huge groups of friends, who get together regularly, but an obvious consequence of this is that you may not know the people in your peer group as well as you think you do. As the statistics show, this appears to be more true of the men who get together often for five-a-side football, or water polo, or any other group activity.
I truly believe that one of the positive aspects of the way in which we are now living is that we can take the time to know our loved ones even better. We can sit with fewer people, ask more questions, and understand each other on a much deeper level. Ironically, I believe we can take this opportunity to feel more connected, not more isolated. My Soho cohorts now live all over the world, and on an almost weekly basis, I find myself having an hour or two one-on-one conversations with friends I cherish in ways I never imagined possible in my twenties.
We are opening up to each other about our relationship struggles, our declining physical ill health, our mental health, our hopes and dreams for the future, our regrets and our mistakes. Desperate phone calls have been made at 3 am, and many tears have been shed along the way. And most of these conversations have come about from a one-line text message: “Hey, how ya doin’?”. Our love has grown stronger, and we almost have a sixth sense as to when one or the other might be floundering slightly. The signs are much clearer now. But rather than assuming all is well, (they would call me if not, surely?), we simply ask each other “how are you?”. And we do it often, and it is from the heart, every time, it is never just a glib check-in.
Please do the same. It is easy to say that these are difficult times, so it may seem more appropriate. But for many, times are always difficult, they just don’t always show it. Like beloved Dennis. Who by the way, I know was laughing uncontrollably from up above as I rushed in late for his funeral, pouring with sweat. I had mistakenly been at another funeral around the corner for a short while, mournfully wishing strangers a good day, all the while thinking, “where are all the people I know?”. Even on that saddest of days amongst the darkness, his humour and light were there with me. Over the years, I have often thought, I wonder if he would still be alive if I had asked him how he was? We were just too busy having what always appeared to be fun. I urge you, not to make the mistake I made. Check-in with your friends. Ask them how they are. You may be surprised by the answer.
For anybody who feels they just cannot open up to friends or family regarding any mental health issues, Mater Dei runs at 24-hour crisis intervention unit, as does the Richmond Foundation who can be contacted on 177.