Standing outside a working men’s club at rock bottom while a bitter wind blows, it takes a certain strength to push open the door.
It takes true courage, says former professional rugby player Luke Ambler, for a tough man to admit when he’s down.
But there is a sanctuary in the storm. A motion in men’s mental health, sparked by the loss of his brother-in-law, is forging a revolution nationwide.
For every Monday night at 7pm, hundreds of men across England are meeting to talk, in pubs or hired halls. It’s ‘fight club’, he says, without the fighting. And it just keeps growing.
“We get 100 messages a month, saying we’ve saved a life,” says Mr Ambler, co-founder of Andy’s Man Club and former Ireland international and Leeds’ Rhinos player. “That’s what it’s for, so that another family doesn’t have to bury their son.”
In April 2016, 23-year-old father Andy Roberts died by suicide. Mr Ambler, married to Andy’s sister Lisa, had been the one to break the news.
“I’ll never forget telling my son Alfie, and the screeching of a six-year-old boy,” he says.
“I’ve never seen devastation like it. There was a lot of anger, and confusion. What could we have done differently?
“It sparked the need, to stop other families going through what we went through. Andy didn’t talk. Maybe if he had, he would still be here.”
With Andy’s mother Elaine, Andy’s Man Club was formed, with the first meeting in Halifax. It started with nine men, then 15 the week after.
On a single bitter winter’s night in November, there were 765. Men are not good at talking, says Mr Ambler, it takes courage to open that door. But there is a growing need.
“Men don’t talk, for three reasons,” he said. “They feel a burden, that it’s a weakness, or they’re embarrassed. But it takes a stronger person to say how you’re feeling. To have the confidence to say ‘I have a problem, and I’m struggling in life’. To say that’s weak, well it’s a load of tosh.
“I’ve never met anybody who isn’t either going through a storm, recovering from one, or facing one. You are never a burden on anybody.”
There’s a town hall in Hebden Bridge that holds meetings, a fire station in Huddersfield. A football club, a rugby club, the Halifax Shay Stadium. There are 25 now, from Cornwall to Perth, with more to open soon in Rotherham and Torbay. They are scouting for rooms big enough in Scarborough and Sunderland.
At the base in Halifax, Mr Ambler is in a state of constant motion. The phone rings every few minutes, if it’s not over a crisis then its the charity’s board, drawing up new protocols.
Boxes line the walls, filled with T-shirts and wristbands all bearing the logo ‘It’s OK to Talk’.
Mr Ambler, as we speak, is pricing up winter gilets as holiday gifts for volunteers.
There are 131 of them now, and it will all add up. But they give their time, every week without fail, to help those that are struggling.
Many started themselves by drawing on the courage to push open that door.
“Andy had the world at his feet,” says Mr Ambler. “There was no warning, no signs or signals.
“We live in a culture where people may be suicidal, and look like they’re doing well.”
Andy’s Man Club has drawn national attention, from the likes of Prince Charles, Ricky Gervais. Mr Ambler says the focus is always on the one man.
“Andy’s Man Club is focused on what we can control. We just want to help one man, one family. It isn’t always successful, but we don’t ever say ‘no’.
“There is a lack of resources, but we are being as resourceful as we can. It would be easy for me to sit here and say about all the things the Government needs to do.
"But a lot of us have to take accountability for what we do as individuals. We all need to focus on that one human being that we can help, then the world is a better place.
"We all need to learn to be kind.”
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