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Why men shouldn't bottle up their feelings

With males more likely than females to take their own lives, there's one project that is reaching out to help

By Kerry McKittrick

Published 17/11/2015

Staying strong: Derek McKenzie
Staying strong: Derek McKenzie
Derek McKenzie with his daughter Samantha
Team effort: Andrew and his group are offering support to others
Andrew Johnston, left with his partner Bernard Lynn. Collect from Martin McKeown

Asking for help isn't a weakness, it's a strength - that's the message being promoted by the Together For You project, which aims to tackle the myth that all men should remain strong and silent.

And with the major emphasis being put on men's mental health this month, it's hoped that they in particular can be encouraged to open up about their feelings or to ask for help.

In Northern Ireland, 77% of those who considered suicide between 2005 and 2011 were men - and men are two-thirds more likely to take their own lives than women.

Together For You, which is funded by the Big Lottery Fund, is an innovative project that has seen nine mental health charities across Northern Ireland band together to provide a range of services for those in need.

The project aims to help all ages, men and women, minority groups and the unemployed.

It will run campaigns to reduce the stigma attached to mental illness and will offer support services for those suffering from mental health issues and their carers.

We talk to two men about how the Together For You project has helped them.

'I lost my mum and my daughter within 18 months ... without help, I really don't think I would be here today'

Derek McKenzie (55) is a trained chef. He is divorced and lives in Enniskillen. He says:

My daughter Samantha was diagnosed with a rare type of cancer called Ewing sarcoma. She was first diagnosed in 2005 when she was 19 after she found a lump on her back.

After the lump was removed she had a round of chemotherapy followed by more surgery and another round of chemo. After a year of treatment Samantha went into remission.

She had three and a half years free of the disease then - Sammy got a job and we got on with our lives. We were very close - her mother and I separated when she was just six years old and after that Sammy and I lived together.

Sadly in 2010 we discovered the cancer had come back. Samantha went through surgery two more times to remove tumours from her lungs and parts of her ribcage.

After those were removed, a scan showed that she still had tumours so she had another round of chemotherapy which was very tough with a lot of bad side effects. Her white blood cells were totally destroyed and Sammy was always in hospital with infections.

That chemotherapy didn't work so the doctor put her on one that was much easier on her physically - we knew at this point that the chemotherapy couldn't save her, it would only prolong her life. Samantha died on February 6 last year.

The first time Samantha was diagnosed with cancer, I was working full-time as a chef and caring for her, too. Eventually I had to take time off work because I could feel the stress building up.

After her second diagnosis I was paid off from my job, which looking back was actually a good thing because it gave me the chance to be Samantha's carer and give her full-time support. Yet that was difficult in its own way, too - before I had somewhere to go to take my mind off what was happening to her.

I've always considered myself to be a strong person and I felt I had to be because I was the only parent Samantha had. Of course, we had friends and family who were a great support, but the two of us were very close.

After Sammy's cancer came back, she started having counselling and so did I. I was raised very much along the lines that men are supposed to keep their feelings to themselves and I did for years until my mother persuaded me to talk to someone and let things go. In the last 10 months of Sammy's life you could see the illness taking over - she lost weight and got increasingly tired. It's a terrible thing to watch your child suffer like that and it got harder and harder because of all the treatments she had to go through.

Both Samantha and I were very close to my mother, but she died about 18 months before my daughter did.

After Sammy died, I went to my doctor to ask about bereavement counselling. He told me about both Cruse and the Aisling Centre here in Enniskillen.

I've had one-to-one counselling every two weeks at the Aisling Centre and then last year I heard about group meetings run by Cruse and funded by Together For You for people who had lost loved ones. They started in October last year and helped me enormously.

The group met initially for six weeks and we've had four more meetings since that initial course.

Losing mum and then Sammy meant that I'd lost the two most important people in my life in a short space of time.

If it wasn't for the counselling and help I've received, I really don't think I would be here today.

I had counselling while Samantha wasn't well and I've had counselling since she passed away and it has helped me so much.

I think men don't like to ask for help - they prefer to sort things out themselves, but it depends on what the situation is and how strong you are yourself.

There isn't any shame or harm in asking for help. Counselling sessions can be tough but they are worth it.

Every day is tough and some days are worse than others, but I've always told myself that I have to keep at this."

‘I felt I was the only gay person for miles, I know how lonely it can be’

Andrew Johnston (52) is a care home manager. He lives in Castledawson with his civil partner Bernard, and has two grown-up children from a previous relationship. He says:

I came out as gay about 15 years ago and at the time it didn't go well. I was quite surprised at the reactions of some friends and family - they looked down on me because I was gay.

Then, a couple of years ago, my daughter came out - Lesley is 29 now. I also have another daughter but I'm only going to talk about Lesley, as this story is really about her and me.

I thought it would be easier for Lesley when she came out because times have changed - I'm now living happily in a civil partnership.

Yet, as it turns out, Lesley's experience was exactly the same as mine. People treated her just as badly as I had been treated. I couldn't believe that someone coming out in this day and age would get the same reactions that I'd had to cope with. I wouldn't say I was angry about it but I was hurt by what happened and it galvanised me into action.

I felt then that I needed to start getting involved in order to help others. I joined a group for personal development in Belfast that was run by the Rainbow Project and funded by Together For You. I did it for me, but I also thought that, having done this course, I would be better prepared to help others.

The course was very much about confidence and self-esteem, and it ran over six weeks. We were assessed at the beginning of the course and again at the end of it, and it was clear that my confidence had grown.

Since completing that course I have started volunteering with the Rainbow Project. Through Together For You, the Rainbow Project is now developing four support groups closer to rural areas: Omagh, Newry, Enniskillen and Ballymena, the group I've been working with.

These places have little or no support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and they're where people are more likely to be marginalised.

At the moment we're setting up the group in Ballymena - the group is in its infancy at the moment but I am enjoying what we're doing. I'm really hoping to make a difference for people who feel they don't have anywhere else to turn to.

Having been there in the past and lived in a rural community where I felt like I was the only gay person for miles, I know how lonely it can be. I really did think that things had moved on from my day and was quite shocked at the attitudes that still persisted here.

Now I want to give people in rural areas a voice or somewhere that's a safe space where they can meet other like-minded people."

Belfast Telegraph

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