Novelist M Jonathan Lee believes that the best way to remove the stigma associated with mental health is to talk freely about it. He spoke to Yvette Huddleston.
Like many people coping with mental health issues, novelist M Jonathan Lee became adept at putting on a brave face for the world.
The Barnsley-based writer has enjoyed success over the past few years, with three well-received novels – The Radio, The Page and A Tiny Feeling of Fear – published since 2013.
He was also, until the end of 2015, managing to hold down a demanding full-time job as head of the Tax and Trust Department at Leeds-based wealth management company Pearson Jones.
Having set up his own business just over a year ago, he has been able to divide his time between accountancy work and writing.
He recently remarried and lives with his wife and their combined family of five children. On the face of it he has a very happy and fulfilling life.
What most people didn’t know about him was that he suffered from severely debilitating bouts of depression.
He has struggled with being honest about this – and he is not alone, thanks to the social stigma still attached to mental illness – but in the past year he made a decision to speak out.
Recently he has been writing a regular column for the Huffington Post on mental health issues and he has been working with the mental health charities ReThink and Time To Change.
“I have been totally honest,” he says. “On the basis that it might make other people believe that it doesn’t matter how people appear on the outside, you never know what is going on inside.”
He is passionate about raising awareness and particularly in encouraging people to talk more openly about problems they may be experiencing.
“My raison d’être is to raise awareness of mental health issues and help to remove the stigma attached to that,” he says.
“People become trapped, believing only they have ever felt this way. We can feel so alone and if we talked about it more openly, people would realise how common it is.
“The current figures are that 1 in 3 people suffer in this way at some point in their lives. I would like to see the stigma removed and everyone begin to accept that it is a problem that really needs to be addressed and not something that should be hidden away.”
In 2015 Lee’s third novel appeared. A Tiny Feeling of Fear told the story of Andrew Walker, a successful businessman, who appears very happy, is respected and admired by his colleagues but who sinks into anxiety and depression due to events in his past. He decides, in order to save his own life, to begin telling the truth. “There was certainly an autobiographical element to it because in effect I was saying ‘this is how I feel’,” says Lee. “But it is also a story of hope and it was really cathartic for me to write it.”
Lee traces his own mental health difficulties back to a traumatic family incident that affected him deeply but which had not been spoken about openly.
“My brother took his own life about 12 years ago and there was no real support offered at that stage – the family was left pretty much alone to cope,” he says.
“Nobody around you knows what to say. And you don’t want to speak about it with your own family.
“I kept thinking ‘this is far worse for my parents because they have lost a child’ so you stifle those feelings and you don’t get them out.
“As more and more time passes you can’t speak about it and it gets more and more difficult to keep the lid on those internalised feelings.”
Nearly four times as many men die as a result of suicide compared to women and recent statistics suggest that those at highest risk of suicide are men – especially single men –between the ages of 45 and 59. Suicide is the biggest cause of death for men under 35.
This has been partly attributed to the fact that men are less likely than women to ask for help when they are feeling distressed or to discuss suicidal feelings.
“I think men still don’t like to show they can be fallible or vulnerable,” says Lee. “I am pushing against that and saying it is alright to be like this. We need more people to speak out, so that others can begin to understand.”
By May last year, Lee had arrived at a very dark place indeed.
“I felt myself sinking further and further,” he says. “Life itself was getting harder and harder and I was getting to the point where I was thinking it would be better for everyone if I wasn’t around anymore.”
It was when he found himself looking at suicide websites late at night that he decided that he had to do something.
“I got to the stage where I had to make a decision,” he says.
“Fortunately I had enough of a conscious mind to look at things logically. I wrote down all the positive things that had happened to me and I realised that just because I am experiencing such desperate feelings now it doesn’t last forever.”
He started talking to people – first his wife, then his parents, sister and other close family members, explaining to them what he was going through.
“It was a huge weight off my mind to be able to say ‘I’m not feeling that good.’”
He dragged himself to the doctor and arranged to have some counselling, got back in touch with concerned friends he had not felt able to see and forced himself to begin writing again after having stopped.
He is now back on track with his writing – he has completed another two novels, to be published later this year – and is feeling positive.
“I don’t think I will ever suffer as badly again because there is nobody now who it is being hidden from,” he says.
“I am quite happy to share it with the world. It is actually benefiting me as well to do that – and I want to do as much as I can to spread the word.”
For anyone experiencing mental health difficulties there is a range of organisations to help provide support and information plus advice on how to access therapies and counselling.
The Samaritans www.samaritans.org
Rethink Mental Illness www.rethink.org
Time to Change www.time-to-change.org.uk
Calm, a men’s mental health charity, www.thecalmzone.net