Sheffield dad sets up men’s mental health support group Talk Club in memory of son

Exposed spoke to Talk Club founder Mike McCarthy to hear how the loss of his son has inspired him to get men talking (and listening) in the region

Last February, Sheffield dad Mike McCarthy lost his son forever. After over ten years living with severe depression, Ross took his own life at the age of 31, leaving behind his young son, fiancé, and heartbroken family.

Sadly, Ross’s story isn’t unique. It’s an all-too-common tale of loss that is repeated across the margins of thousands of lives up and down the country. In fact, statistically suicide is officially the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK – not cancer, or road accidents, or Covid even, but young men taking their own lives.

According to the latest figures, in 2020 the male suicide rate was 15.3 per 100,000, and of 4,912 deaths that year 75 percent identified as male (the female suicide rate was 4.9 per 100,000, still a shockingly high number).

Ross took his own life while on a waiting list for therapy. Like many before him he left a long farewell letter for his friends and family, in which he implored them to ‘Please fight for mental health. The support is just not there.’ Mike carries these words around with him, on the front of his notebook, which he shows me while we sit chatting over a coffee.

“Those words just went straight to my heart,” says Mike, a former Sky News and BBC broadcaster. “They are Ross’s exact words, and his final words in the last moments of his life.”

Talk Club founder, Mike McCarthy (centre), with his family and son Ross (far right)

Talk Club founder, Mike McCarthy (centre), with his family and son Ross (far right)

“He was a good man. He had a great work ethic. He was conscientious, hardworking, very funny, loving and very selfless. Ross was a warrior and he fought hard to make life work.

“He struggled for more than 10 years. He tried everything. He had tried to take his own life the year before and ended up in hospital, yet he was discharged the following morning, back into the system, told to visit his GP, and so the revolving doors continued.”

It was at this stage that Ross asked for therapy and was told it would be six months before he could access any. He died a few weeks into that wait. This shortcoming in the system, combined with Ross’s final words, have inspired Mike to find out firstly what help was already out there, and secondly, and more importantly, what he could do himself. That’s when he discovered Talk Club.

Talk Club was created after one of its founders, filmmaker Ben Akers, lost his childhood best friend to suicide in 2014.  Struggling to process his grief, Ben set out to make a documentary about male mental health and Talk Club is the legacy of that project.

Set up as a talking and listening club for men, they aim to get men to talk more openly about their thoughts, feelings, worries and day-to-day gripes (and all the positive stuff too!).  Mike explains that they create safe and confidential spaces across the UK where men can meet regularly to talk and listen to each other.

Once Mike realised that no Talk Clubs yet existed in Sheffield, or anywhere in Yorkshire for that matter, rather than set up his own charity or foundation and add to the already fragmented mass of charities already doing good work, Mike used his contacts to create Sheffield’s first Talk Club, meeting in September for the first time at Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane stadium.

Mike said: “With the fantastic support of the Sheffield United Community Foundation, who’ve been brilliant in supporting this project, we invite men to come every week, six till eight o’clock on John Street and encourage men, in a safe, non-judgmental environment, to get things off their chest. It’s as simple as it sounds. Talk Club is about men talking, but it’s also about listening to men talking, which is just as important.”

Ross with his siblings

Ross (right) with his siblings

“The focus is on mental health. Not mental illness. The phrase that we use is that it’s a ‘gym for the mind’. We all spend loads of money and loads of time on our physical selves, sometimes maybe at the expense of mental and spiritual health.”

“But there is no health without good mental health. You can be the strongest man in the world, but without good mental health, you can achieve very little, just speak to somebody like Tyson Fury.”

“There’s no pressure. People can come along and not talk if they just want to sit and listen. The only slight difference with our particular group is that we take a score at the start, ‘how are you out of ten?’ with nought being the lowest and ten being the highest, and we ask people to explain why they give that score.”

“We then gradually work towards things that we can do in the coming week that might help our mental health and mental well-being, and then we’ll take a score at the end as people go out. Invariably the score goes up.”

“We’re not therapists, but we are listeners. We have trained Captains, of which I’m one, along with Josh Blunkett, who works for Sheffield United Community Foundation, and if there is somebody who appears to be particularly vulnerable, we have contacts that we can refer them to.”

“We make no bones about it, we’re not there to give advice. We’re there to hear first and foremost. That being said, if there is someone who looks particularly vulnerable, we do have a quiet chat with them and ask if they are with a GP. We’re not raising expectations at all or allowing people to believe that we can help with their mental health, other than listening and just encouraging them to talk and talk to other men.”

At the time of our interview, Talk Club is in its eighth week and is already beginning to see familiar faces return, as well as newcomers who arrive each week as awareness grows. It has grown so much in its short time that they’re already reaching out to Sheffield Wednesday FC, to take the concept to the north of the city. “One thing that we want to do is send out the message that mental health is far more important, even than football,” adds Mike. “We’re hoping we can form what we call a common goal.”

Ross with his sister

As well as Talk Club, Mike is also involved in fundraising and awareness raising efforts for CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) and given that the suicide rate is so high, he tells us he would ultimately like to see more research done into why this is the case, in order to help bring it down.

“I was going to say the numbers speak for themselves, but that’s wrong, they don’t speak for themselves. They’re there but they don’t speak, because if they spoke the figures would start coming down. That’s why we have to keep repeating that three quarters of people who take their own lives are men.”

“Even before we lost Ross that statistic shocked me. It shocked me partly because I thought, where’s the conversation? Where’s the political discourse? Where’s the debate and the media coverage of suicide? I believe that suicide lurks in a dark corner a little bit like child abuse used to 20 years ago. My favourite phrase is sunlight is the best anaesthetic.”

“We’re in a post-industrial age, where men are having their roles questioned. What used to be a relatively simple equation about the role of men in society is now being examined and questioned as never before. I think that that’s part of it, plus the stigma, plus lots of lots of other things. I wish I knew more, and I don’t have the answers, which is why I also think that there should be far more far more money spent on research.”

In the meantime, Mike will continue to fulfil his son’s final wishes and fight for mental health through his work with Talk Club and CALM, and by encouraging more and more men to come forward and talk about their experiences, just like he is trying to do.

Mike wears his grief very close to the surface, and his eyes begin to well as his voice cracks, delivering his parting words: “There’s a pent-up avalanche of people who want to talk about this now. They’ve had enough and I think they recognise that the wind of change is blowing through society in terms of how we look at mental health.”

“People who you might think would want to be private and quiet, and silently grieve the passing of their loved one, like me, don’t anymore.”

“I don’t want to forget, not that I’ll ever forget him anyway, but I want something positive to come out of his death. I just want to say to people that there’s a reason to hope. It’s too late for Ross, but there’s a reason for people like him to believe that there’s something worth staying for. If nothing else, if I can get that message across then that’s good enough for me.

Talk Club takes place in Bramall Lane stadium’s Family Hub, on John Street, from 6pm – 8pm every Wednesday.

A justgiving page set up in Ross’s memory has already raised over £40k for CALM and you can make a donation here

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