Group of men helping to tackle mental ill health in Torbay

Andy\'s Man Club volunteers, back from left, Trevor Driver, Zach Randoll, Graeme Ross; front: James Washbrook, Ben Sisk

Andy's Man Club volunteers - back from left: Trevor Driver, Zach Randoll, Graeme Ross. Front, from left: James Washbrook, Ben Sisk - Credit: Ed Oldfield

As the waves crash onto the sea wall at Preston, a group of men are meeting in a cafe on the seafront to try to turn a different sort of tide.

Torbay has the highest rate of suicide in England. It is the main cause of death in men under 50.

Andy’s Man Club was formed in an attempt to tackle the increasing problem of mental ill-health, following the death of a young father.

The Torbay group meets on Monday nights at 7pm for two hours at the Kinda Cafe to provide a safe place for men to talk.

The volunteers, known as facilitators, have all experienced mental health difficulties. They are there as part of the group to listen, and offer support.

As a health charity, they are allowed to meet indoors despite coronavirus restrictions, with social distancing in place.

And there is a big need for a place where men can go to talk in confidence in Torbay.

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Their approach is summed up in the social media hashtag used by the charity – #ITSOKTOTALK.

The first Andy’s Man Club was in Halifax, Yorkshire, set up by relatives of a 23-year-old father who took his life in 2016, and has since spread across the country. 

The volunteers meeting in Paignton say that talking is key to coping and recovery. It’s something that men can find difficult.

The group is there to break the taboos around mental health, and provide a safe place where men can escape from the ‘macho’ behaviour stereotypes that often prevent them opening up.

The Torbay group grew out of sessions at Newton Abbot, and started meeting at Kinda Cafe in Marine Parade at Preston in autumn 2019.

One of the first was Zach Randoll, 29, a lorry driver, from Ellacombe, Torquay, who is now a facilitator. 

He explained that he had been feeling suicidal, but found it difficult to accept what was happening to him until he started talking about it. 

Zach said: “I just went along, there were six or seven other people who I had never met before in my life. They were the nicest people I have ever met. It grew every week.”

After closing initially at the first lockdown, the meetings at the cafe were soon back up and running, as the need grew during the enforced isolation of the pandemic in the spring of 2020.

Online support is also on offer through a Facebook page and group. 

Zach added: “You don’t have to have a bad week to come. Sometimes you come for the conversation, and to help other people. Sometimes people are having a crisis. We give peer to peer support, from experience. 

“We provide a place where men can come to talk, and not be ashamed to talk about their feelings. It helps to talk to someone who has experienced the same stuff you have. I know how that feels.”

James Washbrook, 27, a sports coach, from Paignton, said: “The stigma is the biggest thing. There is still an embarrassment about talking, and everyone thinks that what they are going through, what they are suffering, no one else suffers it.”

Zach added: “one of the things about depression is that it is isolating. You think no one else is going through it, and no one else is suffering, so no one will understand. But it is not true.”

The issues that come up include bereavement, relationship break-ups, addictions, and trauma and abuse that can date back many years.

The men sit in a circle and take it in turns to talk, if they want to, but there is no pressure if someone just wants to listen.

A facilitator helps the conversation along, and people share what has gone well, or what is troubling them.

There can be laughter as well as a few tears. Everything shared with the group stays confidential, although help may be sought if someone is judged to be at immediate risk of harm. 

Asked what message they want to get out to people, facilitator Graeme Ross, 45, a business consultant, from Paignton, said: “It is OK to talk. It is OK to admit you have depression and anxiety. The other message is that there are men out there going through this, and you are not alone.”

He added: “There are people who have been suicidal, and have come to the other side. We understand, we don’t judge, and we can help.”

Trevor Driver, 39, from Brixham, who works in the NHS, another member of the core group of facilitators, said: “If they want to just come down and kind of feel their way into it, they can. It doesn’t put any pressure on the person.”

Zach added: “The most difficult step is the first one. As soon as they get in, they realise we are a super-friendly bunch of people.”

The latest figures show the rate of suicide in Torbay at 19 per 100,000 is the highest in England, at almost double the national average, and well above the figure for Devon and Plymouth. Members of Torbay Council’s Cabinet heard that deprived areas were the worst affected.

Councillors heard the rate in Torbay had generally increased year on year since 2010 and it was the main cause of death in men aged under 50, young people and new mothers.

A report said the latest local figures show there are on average around 20 suicides a year in Torbay.

Three-quarters are male and four in five are aged between 20 and 59, with the highest rate in the most deprived communities. 

The council has responsibility for tackling suicide under its responsibility for public health and its Cabinet approved a new Torbay Suicide and Self-harm Prevention Plan for 2021-22.

The strategy has been developed by the new Torbay Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Alliance and sets out an action plan for key priorities.

Cabinet member for children’s services Cordelia Law said: “The first page of the plan states that suicide prevention is everybody’s business. That is so true, you never know when your life will be affected by suicide.”

She said as well as affecting immediate family, the impact was felt widely within the community. 

“Nothing prepares you when someone takes their own life,” she said, recalling the death of a friend.

“Suicide is the highest cause of death in young people, new mothers, and men under the age of 50. We owe it to each other to do all we can to prevent it.”

Cllr Law asked people to remember the words of Caroline Flack, the television presenter, widely quoted after her death in February 2020: “In a world where you can be anything, be kind”. 

The plan lists key mental health and suicide prevention priorities initially identified by the alliance.

A report said suicide and mental ill health “disproportionately affects those living in poverty, in deprivation and those who are vulnerable and/or have a learning disability.”

It added: “There is no acceptable number of suicides in Torbay – the aim should be an aspiration of zero suicides.”

The plan aims for no increase in the suicide rate in Torbay, and hopes to see a reduction from the rate of 19 per 100,000 population closer to the level of similar authorities of around 12.

The alliance is creating a ‘dashboard’ of indicators to monitor the level of pressure on the mental health system.

Andy’s Man Club meets at Kinda Cafe, at Kinda Place, 12 Marine Parade, Paignton TQ3 2NU, on Mondays at 7pm. 

When life is difficult, Samaritans are here – day or night, 365 days a year. You can call them for free on 116 123, email them at jo@samaritans.org, or visit www.samaritans.org to find your nearest branch.