Mark Williams is a keynote speaker, author and international campaigner, as well as a good friend of our founding charity, Adferiad Recovery. He provides perinatal mental health training to new parents and parent-to-be, to help ensure that all families are supported during the perinatal period, which is often a challenging time. Below Mark shares his personal story about his own mental health battle, the stigma he faced as a man, and how he ended up campaigning for change for other men and dads.
Even though I had amazing parents and a great childhood growing up, mental health was never talked about. I struggled in school and was a bad kid – you could even say I was disrespectful. That was the way I was brought up sadly. The boredom became too much to bear, and I’d end up doing one of those pranks which the other kids loved but teachers hated. I didn’t do well in school and didn’t think I was good enough at times.
Luckily my good self-esteem came from my local youth club. I was pretty good at sport and remember a youth worker telling me ‘don’t listen to anyone, you can do anything with your life.’
I left school at fifteen, and the youth club a year later. I entered the party world until I met my wife, Michelle. I had a great job, house and company car but my life changed forever after Michelle and I decided to have our first child. Witnessing the trauma that Michelle went through during the birth followed by her severe postnatal depression, made a huge impact on me.
I had never known anyone with postnatal depression. I was so uneducated about mental health I used to wonder: ‘how can people be depressed?’. Within weeks of Michelle’s diagnosis, I had to give up my job to care for Michelle and our son, Ethan. I had loved the social side of my job and so the new situation made me feel totally isolated. Sometimes I would not get passed the front door for days. Within months my personality changed, and I was drinking in an attempt to cope.
I became angry. It got to the point where, if I did manage to get out with friends, I wanted to fight the doorman. I had this strange need to get hurt to try and stop what I was feeling and the thoughts that were going through my head. It was another way of self-harming.
I began to have uncontrollable suicidal thoughts but never acted on them.
At the time, I felt like I could not talk to anyone. I was raised in a working-class community where my father and grandfather were coal miners. Growing up, we looked up to ‘hard men’ who did not show their emotions. Now that I was feeling emotional, I felt weak. I kept telling myself I just had to ‘man up’ and everything would be okay.
The five years that followed the birth of my son, I suffering in silence since. When my grandfather passed away and my mother was diagnosed with cancer weeks apart, my mental health got worse.
I was never diagnosed with PTSD or postnatal depression as I was never asked and would never had told anyone due to stigma back then, but I was diagnosed with ADHD at forty!
ADHD is under diagnosed in people of my generation, and it didn’t help having the diagnosis so late in my life. But I now know what to look out for: stress, restlessness, edginess. I may have a quick temper, can be irritable and suffer from extreme impatience. I over-talk things, fidget and mislay stuff, just as I did at school. But at least I understand the reasons for this so that I no longer beat myself up about it.
I believe my ADHD has helped me to think outside the box. The experience I went through led me to campaign for all new parents to get the mental health support they need. I appeared on television and radio stations, and even published a book with support from the people around me.
What I know now is the quicker the help, the quicker the recovery, and its ok not to feel ok. People have a better understanding today and there is support out there. It can be hard to ask for it, but it’s worth it as it changes your quality of life.
I have replaced all my negative coping techniques with positive ones. Of course, I still have my days but we all do, and they’re nothing like all those years ago when I was unwell. I have learned to check in on myself – writing my thoughts and feeling on paper has really worked for me. I have also learned to say to myself ‘don’t worry what people think, your life is far more important’. We know that extreme stress can lead to anxiety, depression and burnout, and that the biggest killer in men under 45 is suicide. That’s why destigmatising mental health and talking openly about it is so important.
Looking back on my own time, I just wish that I knew what I know now. The best way to ‘man up’ is get the help you deserve. You may even find that the people who are telling you to get a grip are struggling themselves, so treat people how you wish to be treated and together we can make a change.