FEATURE: Jonathan’s ongoing battle against mental health stigma

M Jonathan Lee
M Jonathan Lee
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As his phone rang out, its noise deafening in the still, dark house, M Jonathan Lee blinked away sleep and squinted at the clock on his bedside table.

It was 3am. Something must be wrong.

Jonathan Lee with brother Simon

Jonathan Lee with brother Simon

He fumbled for the phone and answered it. On the other end of the line was the brother of a good friend, a man he’d previously met only once.

“He’d just watched a documentary short I’d helped to make, exploring depression and anxiety,” explains Jonathan.

“This man told me he’d been set to take his own life that evening, but that he’d watched the film, and it had changed his mind. He asked if we could meet up for a chat.”

It was an emotional moment for Jonathan, whose own brother Simon committed suicide back in 2004 after failing to get the help he needed. Following a previous, unsuccessful suicide attempt, Simon let himself into Jonathan’s house while he was away for the weekend and hanged himself. It was Jonathan who found his brother’s body.

M Jonathan Lee

M Jonathan Lee

“Simon was two years older than me and we were very close,” he explains.

“It’s likely that he was bipolar but he never sought medical attention; even ten years ago mental illness still carried a lot of stigma. There was no family discussion afterwards; my parents, my sister and I - tried to deal with it in our own way.”

Jonathan believes it was this unresolved emotional suffering - and his own experience with anxiety and depression - that led him to find a creative outlet. The experience of living with his brother’s illness inspired him, two years after his death, to write a book about a successful businessman who appears to be happy and well-adjusted, but whose private life is a mess. The book, A Tiny Feeling of Fear, was a huge success, selling thousands of copies and earning the South Yorkshire author a number of accolades. It also inspired the documentary Hidden, which was released in 2016.

“My friend’s brother has come a long way since he called me that night,” says Jonathan, who lives in Barnsley with his wife and their five children.

“I’m so proud that something we put out there has made a difference. I always said that if I could just help one person like Simon to realise they’re not alone, that I would have done something worthwhile. Mental health should not be taboo. It is a part of everyday life and our society would be healthier if we were more open.”

And that’s Jonathan’s focus. This month, the 44-year-old released his fifth book and, by the time Drift Stumble Fall officially hit the shelves last week, it had already sold thousands of pre-release copies. Again, this book touches on mental health, focusing on two men who admire one another’s seemingly picture-perfect lives, without realising the suffering going on beneath the surface.

And Jonathan, now a full time author, blogger and speaker, has teamed up with a number of organisations including Mind, Time to Change, Rethink and the NHS, to campaign for mental health awareness. He also regularly speaks in local schools and colleges on writing and mental health, and is currently spearheading a local outreach project in which local churches provide assistance to those affected by anxiety and depression.

Most impressively he has personally built MHBarnsley.org, which is designed to signpost people suffering with mental issues to local discussion and counselling groups, support sessions, and organisations, where they can get help immediately. He hopes to launch the website this summer.

“There is a gap to be filled, for people who’ve had the courage to go to see their GP and admit they’re not feeling great mentally, and who are being put on waiting lists for help. I hope MHBarnsley.org can help to fill that gap and - if successful - I hope it’s a template we can push out to other towns and cities. No one should feel alone. Keeping things bottled up is what can lead to people getting driven to a situation, like my brother.”

Drift Stumble Fall is available from Amazon and Waterstones.