Twelve men on average take their own lives every day in the UK. This International Men’s Day, in partnership with 360i Europe, we launch #ChangeThePicture – a campaign aimed at challenging restrictive male stereotypes. We invited twelve men to reveal the unexpected truth behind photos they’d shared on social media. Together their stories defy the masculine stereotypes that the images convey – to reveal vulnerability, mental health problems and suicidal feelings. Read their stories below.
I keep a strong looking exterior to keep people away from what I feel is a weak interior which is usually in need of help. At this time in my life I was training to compete at a British final for bodybuilding. While working and being a dad to two fantastic little dudes. I feel men are assumed to be strong, stoic and brave. Where at the time I felt the stark opposite. Now I know my strength lies in talking about my weakness. There are pressures that are unique to being a man that have been left by the generations before us. It’s changing just not fast enough. In terms of social media I feel pressure to look good. To be in shape. But I do use it to vent also. Like a blank canvas in which I can sometimes spill my mind. I have always been open about my mental health in the hope that my story resonates with one person. I have my good days and bad days. Like anyone else. I think being able to identity the bad days and do something proactive to change things is the key to keep the mind in check. What you see on the outside doesn’t always reflect what’s happening on the inside. My story isn’t one experience. It’s many over many years. If I ever decide to put them to paper it’ll be saga.
Do you see a man that’s happy in this picture? Full of confidence? On top of the world? Actually I was suffering from depression – feeling sad, lonely and empty inside. I was going through so much off the field but I never showed fans, media, teammates or coaching staff the Leon that was suffering. I wasn’t brave enough to talk. I gave them the bubbly Leon that put on a smile, I pretended. At this point I didn’t know that I would soon crash and fall badly. A few years later, I’d bottled up so much that I attempted suicide. Never judge someone purely on what they’re achieving. For those that are suffering, never ignore how you truly feel.
To those looking in, this moment in my life was a personal and career high. I had quit the City, given up drugs and then proceeded to feature in a two-part BBC documentary coaching ten people with mental health issues to the London Marathon. This day was the Royal Premiere of the documentary and a major milestone and celebration of all the hard work. The irony was that inside, my mind was crumbling under the success, and the weight of depression lead me to therapy and taking anti-depressants for the first time. All I was thinking about was retreating back to my room to hide. What right did I have to speak up, to say I was struggling? I had to be strong for those I was coaching. More than anything I was truly scared of sharing my darkest feelings with my wife to be. Why would she ever want to marry this man, pretending to be something he’s not?
But I remembered that the thing she loved was my vulnerability as a man. I needed to open up to be able to keep moving. Remember, these social media posts are often the highlight reels that rarely show the truth about whats going on beneath the surface. Once I started communicating my truth online, the floodgates opened and so many others shared their stories.
“There are pressures that are unique to being a man that have been left by the generations before us.”
I’m here in this picture with my good mates. I love rugby; this in essence, is my happy place, the place where I didn’t think about my problems, but beneath the surface, I was feeling miserable. I’d battled depression for years and when I wasn’t on the pitch in the heat of battle, I felt alone and isolated. I had this weight of a mental health problem, which I hadn’t opened up about at all. At the time, I wouldn’t have told anyone either, I put on a front everywhere, which was definitely mirrored on social media. It was however social media that gave me relief. I posted about my problems and felt liberated and also not alone, which has been massively important to me. I now know how critical it is for me to talk.
Here I am, seemingly on top of the world performing a DJ set at Secret Garden Party. But I was lost and unfulfilled emotionally and creatively, and wreaking massive destruction on myself. I’d put myself in a position where my irresponsibilities were overlooked, even celebrated. Things rapidly spiralled out of control until they became unstoppable. When you’re living in the midst of this, it’s hard to see it happening or understand how to stop it. One thing led to another and eventually this culminated in one day not wanting to exist, in any form. My vices allowed me to tap into and encourage some dark times. It was only when I seriously took some time off and went away to reprogram and install a new clear head that I realised that major ambition is what I really needed in order to stay happy and positive.
This picture was taken last week. I’m pretending to be chill while in the middle of a full-blown panic attack. It’s something I’ve learned to mask whenever it happens in public and I’m unable to hide at home with the door locked. My hands are sweaty, my heart is beating out of my chest, my mind is racing and I’m unable to catch my breath. I’ve always been an over-thinker and have repeatedly managed to trigger myself by thinking obsessively about my family, career worries, health issues, and never quite feeling ‘content’. It’s something I’m seeing more and more of in young people. If any of this sounds familiar, just talk it out with someone you love and trust, look into cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness – it saved me before and still does now. We’re all a little fucked up and that’s what makes us beautifully human.
“We’re all a little fucked up and that’s what makes us beautifully human.”
I’ve always told myself that I have a happy life. I have been lucky. I’ve always believed that since I’ve done what I have wanted to do with my life and I’m living in a time when I can be who I am without fear, it was my duty to be happy. When this picture was taken I was 40 and beginning to realise that maybe it was time to stop kidding myself. Sometimes things won’t just “be alright”. I was struggling with feelings of self hate and inadequacy. I retreated into myself spending less time with friends and family. My relationship ended with my boyfriend and I felt alone. I became reckless and promiscuous in my private life and I felt such shame. I continued posting on social media. Photos of me at the gym, resilient, powerful and most importantly in control. Inside the years of ignoring pain were catching up. I was close to crisis and it terrifies me now to think where that could have taken me. In the end a few friends realised things were far from good. With their support I healed and my life slowly improved. Even when we’re gay, men are most often expected to be infallible. There are no concessions. And no one wants to be a drama queen.
When I posted this photo I fooled myself into thinking it was to show family and friends what I was doing. In reality, it was to project an image of someone else to complete strangers that I’d probably never meet. At the time I was seeing a counsellor in Canary Wharf, self-harming, taking sertraline for depression and having suicidal thoughts. I didn’t share the whole story because of the stigma attached to depression. Who’d like a photo of a loser? I was ashamed that I was this lucky guy – good friends, healthy, owned my own company. The only thing I didn’t have was happiness. My mother’s words resonated in my head when I was unhappy, she’d tell me “grow up and be a man”. I’d push my feelings to the back of my mind and put on a brave face. Social media is not good for my self-esteem. I add filters to my photos. I become more critical about what I look like. Basically I’m always trying to change who I really am… but I’m just a regular guy.
I was finally diagnosed with type 2 Bi-polar disorder five years ago. It was great to identify exactly was going on in my head. Especially after decades of trying every anti-depressant known to science. When this photo was taken I was having a bad down period, really not coping well. I had taken on too much. Doing a course at University College London as well as running my own business. My tutor looked at me one day and said, “you’re not going to deliver the paper but you’ll tell me where you’re going on holiday, because you’re not looking well.”
For my tutor to come and tell me that it was so obvious that I was struggling mentally was a wake up call. I knew there was something I really enjoyed doing, learning to wakeboard, so I went. This was a solace for me, but looking at my social media this just seemed like another typically adventurous post. I work in the tourism industry, i’m selling happy memories. To my audience and friends i’m the outdoorsy, sporty guy – skiing, wake-boarding, hiking, I’m always encouraging people to get active outdoors. That can bring huge pressure because it’s difficult to show any vulnerability. I’m always smiling, because that’s what sells. You sell your lifestyle, we’ve all become brands basically. People looking for their next holiday don’t want to associate with anything negative. But although it looks like i’m always on holiday and always having a great time, the reality is sometimes the total opposite.
My saving grace is to call my close friends and tell them “today is a bad day”. There wasn’t much they could do but all they need to say is ‘OK I’m here’ and it helps massively. I couldn’t be more grateful to them. If you don’t open up to everyone, open up to your friends. The thought that someone understands, the recognition, knowing that someone hears you helps immensely.
“You sell your lifestyle, we’ve all become brands basically.”
I shared this picture because I was proud of what we had achieved. I shared this picture trying to tell the world I was a success. I shared this picture feeling worthless. I was President of my Students’ Union, Captain of the rugby team, very social, loads of friends, but I still felt worthless.
Throughout my whole life, I’ve had depression on and off. This picture was one of many that I shared to cover this up. I was this manly man, this stereotype of ‘manliness’. However, underneath I was struggling. I found it impossible to talk to anyone about how I was feeling. It built up to a point where I couldn’t cope anymore. I spoke to my doctor, who was incredible; he talked to me for ages and suggested that I speak to a counsellor. I struggled to talk to them too, but I opened up to a couple of friends. That was the turning point, I realised I wasn’t alone feeling like this. Other people feel the same, and no one thinks any less of you for talking to them about your feelings.
I’m still a manly man, I still play rugby, I still have great friends. I still suffer from depression. But I no longer suffer in silence. I have people I can talk to, people who are there if you need them. I have a wonderful girlfriend who understands. Talking about how I feel has completely changed my life. I think the biggest thing I can take away from my experiences is that life is better when you talk about it. You’ll probably find people are in the same situation as you, and you help them as much as they help you, and that makes you feel great.
Sharing this picture was just a small act in a much larger issue of dealing with depression; I used to think that keeping it a secret would make me happier. I viewed it as a weakness, thinking that people knowing about it will change their impression of me for the worse.
Social media encourages you to put your best face forward, for me, this was about wanting people to see me as happy and sociable, two of the things that I felt most lacking in at the time. The problem is that ‘putting your best face forward’ is what everyone else is doing, so I was endlessly comparing myself to others who seemed truly happy, truly sociable – not really stopping to imagine that their posts might be a bit of a façade too. I started to realise the effect that social media was having on my emotions and came off it completely for the sake of my sanity – and now tell anyone who’ll listen to do the same.
Taking part in #ChangeThePicture is part of a change that I’m making in my approach to depression – to face it and own it, rather than push it away. I’ve come to realise leading an authentic and honest life is more important to me than hiding for fear of being judged, so when I was faced with the opportunity to take part in the campaign. I realised that saying no would make me feel worse, because I would’ve been hiding, and not owning it.
I would encourage others suffering from depression to seek help. Even if they tell just one person. Because the judgement we fear is largely imagined. Everyone I’ve told has been supportive, kind and understanding, and as a result of being open, I’m moving towards the very thing I thought hiding it would achieve – happiness.
“Weirdly, with social media, we can feel the strongest desire to show success when we’re feeling lowest.”
That picture was taken in East London in August 2014. I was at a point in life where I wanted stability. I was in a really committed long distance relationship with this girl but all of a sudden everything ended. After the breakup things started to fall down. I lost my sense of enthusiasm, my pro-activeness – with work, with people. The heartbreak triggered anxiety – I felt I couldn’t be myself anymore, there was something missing. I was thinking things like ‘I don’t know why I’m here and I don’t know why I’m even going to work’. I was constantly frustrated and stressed out.
I think with social media you need to show that you’re not having a hard time and still show off, that you’re this successful guy. It’s like you have to feel accepted by everyone, even strangers. And weirdly, we can feel the strongest desire to show success when we’re feeling lowest. I wanted to share this picture to show that I was still fine, I was still around. But healing is a process and you need to embrace it – it’s a cliche but time will heal.
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