When I turned into an adult man at 18, I developed a relationship with hobbies such as exploring exotic branches of Wetherspoons, eating olives (sorry mum, I know that’s posh for you) and doing some pretty out-there things as an ambassador for CALM. Now five years on at 23, I tend to cherish my relationship with the latter the most (sorry ‘Spoons and olives) and I’m super excited to be presenting a BBC Three series inspired by CALM and losing my friend Olly in 2015 to suicide when he was just 27. The series involves me meeting a range of men who feel failed by the current mental health infrastructure who’ve taken their minds into their own hands using radical methods to find happiness and choose life. Theresa May’s speech on mental health in January was important, but personally left me skeptical of the government's genuine interest in improving the support infrastructure. While they've pledged an additional £25million over the next three years in mental health spending, it’s important to note that for the past three years they’ve consecutively failed to keep increased mental health budget pledges. So if the government aren’t willing to support vulnerable young men more, I wanted to meet those who have a DIY approach.
Jack and his frozen balls.
WE FILMED DURING STORM BARBARA, SO IT WAS THE COLDEST MOST HORRIFIC EXPERIENCE OF MY LIFE. WE DIVED INTO A FREEZING COLD LOCH, FIVE DAYS BEFORE CHRISTMAS AND I FROZE MY BALLS OFF.
One of the first people I met was Finlay, a 19-year-old who lives in Oban on the west coast of Scotland. He has suffered two severe bouts of depression through his teenage years and tried counselling and medication. Then he discovered a rather radical daily activity he could do in his local loch that changed everything. Finlay invited me to undertake one of the hardest tasks you can ask of a 17-stone comedian who won’t even take his t-shirt off in front of his mum – cold water swimming. Unfortunately the time we filmed with Finlay was during Storm Barbara, so it was the coldest most horrific experience of my life. We dived into a freezing cold loch, five days before Christmas and I froze my balls off. Everyone said it would be rejuvinating, life-affirming, cathartic – but it was about as cathartic as a prostate exam.
That being said I could see how in normal weather conditions, the benefits of cold water swimming could be brilliant in tackling mental health issues. The cold water is said to give swimmers a euphoric boost – a feeling of vigour and life, with many doctors agreeing this is a brilliant treatment for depression.ThenI met a chum of mine, fellow comedian Richard Gadd. His comedy show Monkey See Monkey Do explores the internal voice some of us have during times of depression and anxiety that tells us we’re worthless. His monkey started to seriously affect him after he was the victim of sexual assault, and the honest, frank and inspiring show he wrote about overcoming this experience won him the 2016 Edinburgh Comedy Award. He’s now an ambassador for SurvivorsMCR – a charity dedicated to supporting male victims of sexual abuse.
What I loved most about Richard’s show was he performs the whole hour whilst running continuously on a treadmill, so he invited me to undertake one of the hardest tasks you can ask of a 17-stone comedian with a passion for bread, breakfast telly and sitting down on soft furnishings: early morning exercise.
We met in Finsbury Park and ran for a whole morning, not even stopping for a Greggs £2 bacon bap and mocha deal. Soon enough I actually quite enjoyed it and genuinely felt a sense of renewed energy. Richard told me all about the benefits of self reflection, having time to check-in with yourself and how running helped him pluck up the courage to open up to family, friends and a therapist. He fully believes that more men need to open up in times of crisis.
RICHARD TOLD ME HOW RUNNING HELPED HIM PLUCK UP THE COURAGE TO OPEN UP TO FAMILY, FRIENDS AND A THERAPIST.
I wanted to explore more than physical activity. A lot of the time a feeling of depression and anxiety comes from being unhappy with our personal identity and struggles to embrace who we are as men.So finally I met up with Raven Mandella (Neil), a drag artist originally from Leeds who is probably the most inspiring person I’ve ever met. Neil was involved in an incident where he was racially and homophobically attacked, and he fought back, unfortunately to the punishment of him getting a prison sentence. Five months on, he served his time, fully accepted his mistakes and is moving on to help create a society where men don’t have to fight for freedom with their identity.
Meeting Raven was amazing yet daunting, because I had the task of coming up with my own drag queen alter-ego (Amber Dextrous) to then go and perform in drag with Raven outside Pentonville Prison. And at first I hated being in a size 22 party dress from Dorothy Perkins, until soon enough I was strutting my stuff along the prison wall like a seasoned pro. It made me realise it’s just a persona, a part of Neil’s identity that is liberating and fun.
Amber Dextrous and Raven Mandella doing unspeakable things to a prison wall.
AT FIRST I HATED BEING IN A SIZE 22 PARTY DRESS FROM DOROTHY PERKINS, UNTIL SOON ENOUGH I WAS STRUTTING MY STUFF ALONG THE PRISON WALL LIKE A SEASONED PRO.
And that’s what I wanted this series to be about: liberating men from the bullshit traditional notions of masculinity and showcasing different guys doing a wide range of things to tackle their demons. I want to encourage us to do more than talk - but come together more as a community, starting even with more groups of lads meeting up in exotic branches of Wetherspoons, speaking openly about feeling down and then doing something positive about it. (Other pub chains are available).
Watch HAPPY MAN now on iPlayer >