How former Sheffield cop who considered suicide beat his demons and is now helping reduce mental health stigma

Andy Wilson knew the time had come to ask for help.

Thursday, 10th October 2019, 14:22 pm
Andy Wilson, left, with fellow Andy's Man Club facilitator Martin Frost at an event in Dronfield

As a policeman of 26 years, he admits he saw things others would never have to see and the pressure of 11 years as a Sargeant had become too much.

"I had counselling for several months, on and off," he remembers. "A lot of people deal with the stuff well and can cope, but sometimes the cumulative effect becomes too much to deal with. And it became too much.

"But I came out the door at the other end all the better for it. The lady I saw was incredible and up to that point, I never thought I'd ever walk through the door of a counsellor to talk openly about my issues.

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"It may come as a surprise to some people to read that I did have a bad time, but there's no point saying I didn't. A lot of people go through life denying problems and issues.

"I had a great job and a great family but I was going through a bad time. Everyone looks and thinks 'he's doing all right' which can make it even more difficult. I didn't want to rock the boat and say 'actually, I'm not'."

Andy admits he considered taking his own life, and he is far from alone. Statistics suggest that 42 per cent of men aged 18-45 consider suicide as an option at some point and suicide is still the biggest killer of men under the age of 45.

Andy has since signed up as one of five facilitators at Andy's Man Club, a charity set up in 2016 by Luke Ambler after his brother-in-law, Andy Roberts, took his own life. Beginning as a room offering men a space to come together and talk about their thoughts, Andy's Man Club has grown and now has 22 centres across the UK.

Luke Ambler of Andy's Man Club

Sheffield's branch opened earlier this year, at South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Community Rooms (197 Eyre Street, S1 3FG). "We're really grateful to them for making the venue available to us," Andy says.

"Sheffield was the 17th group and they are expanding all the time. The reasons for Man Club are twofold... reducing the stigma around men having dark thoughts and ending up in dark places, and getting guys to open up.

"It's a generalisation but men don't tend to open up and talk about their feelings. As men, we're all playing a role, whether it's a dad or a husband or whatever, and there's a stereotype that men need to be strong, support everyone else and not be seen as weak.

That's a cultural issue and no-one's to blame, but everyone brings their own issues and problems covering a wide range of subjects. Basically, we're there for anyone over 18 who's been through a storm, is going through a storm or can feel a storm brewing.

South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue headquarters on Eyre Street

"We're not professional counsellors, there's no formal sign-up process or referral. I don't know the surnames or backgrounds of people who come along, unless they want to share. Men can just turn up at 7pm on a Monday, get a brew and we're off."

Andy dealt with suicides for most of his career with the police, and every one was a man.

"You put your professional head on when you turn up and deal with it but you can't help but see the devastation," he says.

"Every suicide leaves questions behind. It's not just about the families, but also the guys and girls turning up in uniform to deal with it. Police, ambulance staff, NHS staff. It has a real knock-on effect and if we can stop just one, we stop a lot of pain for a lot of people."

Andy, though, is quick to stress that the service is not just for men who feel suicidal. On January 7, the first night of the club, 17 men turned up. Their record so far is 40 in one night.

"It's about getting guys to open up before they get to that point where suicide becomes an option," he added. "If men don't want to come and talk, that's fine too. It can be useful to know that you're not the only person in South Yorkshire dealing with mental issues."

Andy is still proud and privileged to have served as a police officer for 30 years. "I was lucky to help people in that job, and that's what this is about now," he says. "It helps me deal with my demons, if you like, by helping others. It puts things into perspective.

"Seeing guys walk through the door, a little apprehensive because it's their first time, and then hearing them say that the sessions have become a big part of their life... that's what I get out of it.

"It's so rewarding, and this is just the beginning. There are so many people in Sheffield before you even consider Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham. There's no reason why there can't be a Man Club in each town one day.

"Having issues can be like carrying a weight around and counselling helped me understand it. Man Club does that in a basic, fundamental way, with no judgement or stigma.

"It's about removing the stigma of guys raising their hand and saying 'actually, I need some help here'."

Andy's Man Club meets every Monday evening at 7pm, apart from Bank Holidays, at South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Community Rooms (197 Eyre Street, S1 3FG). Visit www.andysmanclub.co.uk for more information.