This post concerns something that is very important to me.
I know from personal experience the devastating effect that mental health issues can have on individuals and also on their families. Families that are often trying desperately to cope and help their loved ones in crisis. I believe passionately in the importance of timely and appropriate support for all involved and for the mental health focus to become less about stigma and fear and more about respect and understanding.
Finance and education are key to helping to bring about the change that is badly needed.
And whilst it is clear that politics, sadly, plays a significant part in this, I will leave my views about our current government's lack of interest and investment in mental health services for another place and time.
This weekend however I decided to do something about my own education in this area and grabbed an opportunity to understand more about a very specific aspect of mental health.
So we drove to Brighton to watch a movie.
Now, when I say movie, I am probably not explaining myself as well as I should. The film that we went to see, Evelyn, is an important documentary on male suicide and the impact that it can have on a family. A subject that is more relevant these days than ever before.
The official web-site describes the film in the following way;
“This poetic feature documentary explores the fabric of grief and the longevity of love. Part quest film, part road-trip, part memoir, EVELYN is an exposition of the taboos of mental health and male emotion, and a tribute to our times.”
Evelyn is the story of a family, primarily three siblings, that has struggled to come to terms with the suicide of their brother thirteen years before. In fact, the eldest of the siblings admits in the first few minutes that he has found it difficult to even say his brothers name since his death. A tragic and heart breaking admission that is clearly shared by the others and forms the basis of the story. In order to tackle this familial blockage and to honour the memory of their brother, they decide to take part in a walk, mainly in places associated with Evelyn, and to talk about him with family members and friends.
And so the concept of talking whilst walking in nature is introduced.
To make it even more fascinating, the eldest of the siblings, Orlando von Einsiedel, is the director of this film and it becomes clear that it is his initiative (at, it is shared later, the suggestion of his long standing producer) to engage his family in this combination of pilgrimage, counselling and countryside ramble.
And it slowly, carefully and respectfully becomes everything that I had hoped for and more.
Although it is understood that the family is accompanied by a camera crew on their walks, they soon become oblivious to their presence and you can feel that the conversations are authentic and unforced. Without the benefit of a back story, the viewer is encouraged to piece together and understand for themselves what may have been going on within the family when this tragic event took place. The film is undoubtedly stronger for not spelling it all out at the start.
There are so many aspects of this journey that are raw and heartbreaking. The home movie, shared with the viewer in the first ten minutes, shows the young, outgoing and charismatic Evelyn, leaving us wondering what happened and why. The revelation that the siblings were primarily brought up as a single parent family sheds light on their relationship with their mother. And the tension positively crackles on the screen when they are joined by their father on part of the walk.
Gradually the family and friends of Evelyn start to help us understand more. How Evelyn had grown progressively more depressed in his late teens. How the family had struggled to help him through these years and then his diagnosis with schizophrenia. And the continuing challenges as his mental health slowly declined, with his regular threats of suicide and the families draining and emotional attempts to keep some kind of a check on his emotional and physical whereabouts.
Whilst trying to live their own lives.
The moments on the walk spent with Evelyn's closest friends were amongst the most emotional. The mate who had lost his father, also to suicide, when he was young and had been welcomed by Evelyn into his family to help with his recovery. And the friend who assertively but kindly challenged Orlando to help him to open up and share his own grief. Powerful and difficult to watch at times.
For us, there were inevitably tears during and after the film, based around our empathy for the family and also on our own personal experience of suicide. Importantly, the slightly difficult conversation that we had afterwards was perhaps the most valuable aspect of the afternoon. Anything that helps people to start talking about mental health in general and male suicide in particular has to be a good thing.
The event concluded with a question and answer session hosted by two local mental health activists with excellent credentials and they were joined on stage by Orlando himself. Whilst the Q&A was relatively brief, it was fascinating to see Orlando’s complete engagement in the subject and his desire to use his brave and wonderful documentary to help others learn from the experiences of his own family.
In the spirit of the afternoon's message, we were all invited to join the director and organisers in a walk down to the beach, to breathe and to talk. We politely declined, however it was more to do with the wet and rather wild weather than anything else. After some much needed time out to chat and digest our own experiences, the walk we did take along the sea front was poignant.
I suspect that most of us understand the benefits of talking through problems. By adding the calming effect of nature into the equation it will hopefully improve effectiveness and offer more options for people desperately trying to find a way to cope. An important reminder to all of us not to underestimate the value of simple and personal support for those in need.
CALM ( the Campaign Against Living Miserably) is doing a lot to raise understanding of male suicide in the UK. I want to conclude this post therefore with some stark and terrifying statistics shared on the CALM website.
there are 3,701 male suicides in the UK every year (out of a total of 4,871 )
there are 10 males suicides in the UK every day (out of a total of 13)
Men are, on average, three times more likely to kill themselves in the UK than women.
Suicide is the main cause of death in men under the age of 50 in the UK.