Speaking out, Men’s health and Football with John Hunt

Suicide is the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45. And as Football is one of, if not the biggest escapism for Men then we as Football supporters and writers have a duty to talk about it. I got to speak to John Hunt (@Huntyroyal on twitter) who has been a massive activist in spreading awareness around mental health and Football for many years. In this interview John tells his story and spills the facts behind an issue which we all should be able to tackle!

Q: For people who don’t know, you are someone who does a lot of work surrounding Men’s mental health, so what have you done so far and how have you been involved in spreading awareness? 

“Firstly, to give a bit of background, when I was 20 (in 1992) and studying as a student nurse, I caught Glandular fever. I lost weight and was physically unwell for a while, this led into me developing an eating disorder (Anorexia/ Bulimia). The only thing I really focused on was controlling what I ate one way or another. This led to near hospitalisation and giving up my training. 

The effects of a difficult upbringing (problems at home, being bullied, overweight) all came to a head with this fight to have control. 

It dominated my life for 2 years and nothing else really mattered. I restarted my nursing training and hid my issues well so that I qualified. However back then the stigma around mental illness was even worse than it is now, and when you’re male and in the caring profession and are supposed to cope. I never talked with anyone about as I was too scared of the implications on my life and career. At the time and for years after, I also didn’t realise I was living with bipolar disorder until finally diagnosed in 2007. 

I hid my illnesses or learnt to live with them for all that time. When you have been at rock bottom yourself you really know what it’s like for someone who is struggling. This understanding helped me a lot throughout my career. It also highlighted how little support and understanding there was around mental health, and how hiding it away was the norm, I knew this needed to change. 

It was only a few years ago that I became more comfortable in my own skin, thanks to having a settled home life with my family. I also realised that if my nursing career ended because of talking about my experiences, I am ok with that as I have helped so many people. Having my issues does not define me they are just part of who I am.

Lee Adams is a Fulham fan who set up the Walk And Talk Men’s mental health group in London (football fans from rival clubs sharing their mental health experiences on way to a game). In 2018 he challenged Reading FC fans to walk from our ground to theirs before a match. I love a challenge and myself, Lee and Martin Sims (another Reading FC fan) did the 7km, 17 hour walk overnight through the rain. We had never met, and it was a tough but enjoyable experience. The walks have helped raise money for the various charities. 

On New Year’s Eve we completed our 3rd walk between the two clubs and even celebrated midnight as The Spice Girls. We have had a lot more people from both clubs join the walks and it really means so much to see guys as young as 18 talking an interest in mental health and to do a walk which is no means easy when they could be partying into the new year. 

This is why I do what I do, I do not want one person to go through what I had to if I can help them. It’s about being a role model for the next generations, by sharing my experiences and guiding them through some of the minefield ahead. 

To get the football clubs, media, fans, social media involved has really helped spread the word around mental illness. It makes it an everyday conversation. It makes friendships for life. It makes a difference. 

I also organised a shorter walk for Reading and Aston Villa fans together in 2019 from the station to the ground. It doesn’t matter bout the distance, its about the unity, clubs together as one in the fight against the stigma of mental illness.

Over here in Ireland where I live the issues around Mental illness are the same, in 2019 I did a 50km walk from Wicklow to Dublin to raise funds and awareness it’s a good job I enjoy walking!! 

This year I became an ambassador for the See Change green ribbon movement here, which aims to end the stigma around mental illness, although the campaign was mainly online due to the impact of Covid19 it is great to be part of the voice that can make a difference. 

If you have a bigger voice more people hear you. I want to have the same impact in mental health awareness as I did throughout my nursing career. 

This year has been difficult to get over to England to continue the walks, but I believe as a football fan just being there if someone needs a mate to talk to can help so much in these stressful times. 

We need all clubs at all different levels of the game to pull together to support each other at these testing times where the priority must be just keeping a club alive. Rivalries go out the window, that can wait for another day.” 

Q: A lot is made of a stigma that surrounds Men’s mental health, what is that Stigma? 

“Men don’t talk, that is the impression and for so many sadly that is so true. People have no idea someone is struggling, sometimes on the outside things seem fine but inside it’s a different matter. 

Men are supposed to be able to cope, put your emotions aside and get on with it. I do think this can be a generational thing, in my dad’s era it was go for a few pints that will fix it. This still exists now sadly, like I said before I wish I was able to talk 20 years ago. 

I see it with army veterans who for years have been trained to not show emotion, to all of a sudden face civilian world and no one put these emotions back into them before they left. 

We cannot change the past, but we can make the future better for my children and the next generations. We can encourage open everyday conversation. The mainstream media need to be mindful of the language they use around mental health so we can get away from the stereotypical terms like ‘ Pyscho’ etc. The pressures put on people to be the perfect shape, have the best qualification, job puts people under huge pressure. When there is no escape from these images or stories it can really start to undermine someone’s mental health. 

We need more role models to come forward from different sports, backgrounds and ethnicities, to be the change. 

For instance, wouldn’t it be good if Sky Sports did a weekly show on mental health, looking at the current issues, speaking to players, fans and make it a normal everyday conversation. 

The interest would be there so why not make it happen and is relevant in both men and women’s football. 

I also know it is not easy, I have to manage my mental health everyday as so many of us do through the good and the bad times.”

Q: Men’s mental health and football seem to go hand in hand, and we have seen that especially through lockdown, so why is that? Why does football play such a big part? 

“I think so many of us use football as an escape from the pressures of life, you can put aside everything else and just focus on the game. Although watching Reading Fc play at times puts me through every human emotion in 90 minutes. Its also about friendship catching up with people before a game, or the person you sit next every week for years but don’t see outside the match. This applies to female fans as well of course as we are all in this together. 

I also think men don’t shut up during a match we have an opinion on why a player is having a shocker, or not interested. Do they consider what is going on with that player behind the football mask. Are they affected by a mental health issue. Ex and some current players are now coming forward to talk about the problems they have and I believe this helps us identify with them as people as well as footballers. Regardless of what they earn, lifestyles etc mental illness affects everyone. 

If the fans who shout at the games could only shout about their mental health as well then, we would be getting somewhere. 

The lockdown of football as well everything these last number of months has a huge impact, something we really take for granted was taken away from us. It hurts, it’s one more thing to impact on our already precious mental health. Seeing the games back on but without fans is something I guess but just not the same. Like your favourite band playing but half the original members missing. If you’re a football fan who is struggling or not, the game has always given us hope, a win, a cup shock and the elation of promotion or a last-minute winner. I guess it also brings us down to earth with every loss or relegation, but football is like life and we need it as part of ours.”

Q: Do you think then that Football teams have more of a duty to make sure that their supporters are ok? Do teams do enough? 

“Yes, and they also have a duty to support the players, coaching staff and all the background staff involved at a club. To me it is one big family and doesn’t work properly if someone or something isn’t right. 

When football was in lockdown, I actually think it made clubs realise how much they need the fans rather than take them for granted as my have happened previously. While the impact of Covid19 has been horrendous it has actually brought people closer together in 

many respects. We all realise how much we need each other to get through the tough times. 

Players have reached out to fans with phone/video calls amongst other things and it is great to see but it would be great if this continued when hopefully we get back to some sort of normality. 

Personally, Reading Fc have been fantastic supporters of our mental health, reaching out to fans, supporting the walks and giving us a voice to talk about what is still a taboo subject for so many.

Q: So, for me this is a big subject, it has almost been a year to the day that I lost a close Friend of mine who committed suicide. A long time before that I realised that not everything was good, he had been having a lot of family problems and he spoke about it very openly to me. But because those sorts of issues were so foreign to me, I couldn’t really help. But what I did notice was that to escape those issues he turned to Football, he was a massive Celtic fan, and he would just surround himself in Football. So for as much as Football was an escapism it also meant that he was hiding from his problems almost. How hard is it for Men to accept that they even have a mental health problem? 

“First of all I am so sorry for your loss, that is heart breaking. You did your best and that is all any of us can do. It is so true, that we can all hide away from our problems using football or anything else. But when a problem becomes to big it eventually takes over. I think for anyone accepting they have a problem is the hardest part but also the start of recovery when you do. We all have different upbringings, life experiences and choices that model us as we go through this funny old life. If you are brought up to be a shut up and get on with it kind of person this can be the start of the problem. I was and I am sure many others are. We have toundo that and ensure that the next generations are brought up to be able to say it really is ok not to be ok. 

The other side to this is that someone may not realise they even have a mental health problem and are just fighting the demons that may go with it, for example through alcohol or drugs that then just add to the underlying problem. That is when it may have become to late to get the help they needed. Post-traumatic stress disorder really is only being recognised as an issue in recent times. 

Having to care from a young age maybe gave me an insight in to how my head works, but then I would over think and over analyse everything there must be a balance somewhere. 

People are armed with the tools from a first aid course to deal with all physical injuries that may come across in everyday life. If people had more ease of access to the range of mental health first aid courses available nationally then I feel this would help someone feel more able to deal with someone in crisis and to be able to get them to a safe place at that crisis point. 

Football clubs and associated groups are providing a range of mental health football therapy groups, however it would be so beneficial if all clubs around the UK and Ireland provided a similar support network. Physical activity is also huge in helping people manage their mental health so this would be of dual benefit.”

Q: Linked to that, afterwards I don’t think handled it well. For so many reasons it changed my life and yet I found it so hard to talk about. As someone who has worked so hard to promote this issue what would your advice be to someone like me a year ago who was struggling in silence? 

“People who lose someone through suicide are left with a whole range of emotions, guilt, anger, sadness, frustration. There needs to be the professional support out there through all the usual routes. This includes the G.P’s, community mental health teams, charities and counsellors. However, like for anyone affected by a mental health issue, access needs to be quick and the right support. Identifying and trusting a counsellor can have a massive impact on someone opening up to a relative stranger. 

We need to be creative in how we offer support, I believe social media like Twitter can help with this. People support each other through this medium where sometimes speaking online and not face to face as it is less threatening. Phone support services are just as vital. 

There just needs to be options of all types as we are all different people.”

Q: Finally, what is the overall message that you are trying to push and where should people go if they do need help? 

My advice is please don’t struggle alone, reach out to someone, anyone start that conversation. I know we all can hide our mental health difficulties behind the mask we wear but sometimes it really is ok to take it off and say I am not ok. 

I do not have all the answers, but I am here to listen and not judge anyone, no one is perfect. We can be kind and care for each other. 

If what I do helps one person get the support, they need then job done. 

If in 10 years’ time when my daughter is 18, if mental illness is talked about in everyday conversation as easily as ordering a cup of coffee then we have all made a difference.

If you feel effected or compelled to talk after reading this please remember there are so many people willing to listen:

Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) 0800 58 58 58 (5pm-12am) 

Samaritans 116 123 (24 hours a day, 365 days a year) 

or email 

Mind 0300 123 3393 (9am-6pm Mon to Fri) or text 86463

National Gambling Helpline 0808 8020 133 (8am to midnight)

See your local GP or call NHS: 111

Shout Crisis Textline Text 85258 (available 24/7)

Thank you for reading:

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