WHEN John Lewis launched Males Tales – Helensburgh’s first men-only mental health group – in 2019, he had no idea how popular it might prove, or how successful the initiative could become.

Fast forward 12 months, approaching the end of the most disruptive and disconcerting year in recent memory, the organisation is now “growing arms and legs”, according to its founder, who believes it will have a vital role to play in post-pandemic community life.

A recent study from the Mental Health Foundation found that job insecurity and financial uncertainty topped the list of concerns for survey respondents in 2020, with one third of UK adults worried about having enough money to pay bills and debts.

Another study, led by the University of Glasgow and published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, found young people, women, individuals from more socially disadvantaged backgrounds and those with pre-existing mental health problems reported the worst mental health outcomes in the initial phase of the national lockdown, with the paper concluding that "the effects of Covid-19 on the population’s mental health and wellbeing are likely to be profound and long-lasting".

As the winter months draw closer, and new restrictions continue to hamper economic recovery, a looming mental health crisis has been forecast, exacerbating pre-existing issues and producing a whole range of fresh problems.

Thankfully, in Helensburgh at least, groups like Males Tales are ready to take up the slack.

Helensburgh Advertiser: John Lewis, founder of Males TalesJohn Lewis, founder of Males Tales

John, who serves with the Royal Navy, told the Advertiser: “The whole pandemic is going to have a lasting effect on mental health for people. It could be generational.

“If this lasts a year, you’ll probably see the fallout for four or five years, both mental health-wise and economy-wise.

“I don’t think there’s a happy ending to this, I’m afraid.

READ MORE: New men's mental health hub Males Tales opens in Helensburgh

"When we first started doing Zoom meetings, a couple of the guys said they found it was a leveller, they didn’t think being in lockdown was a problem for them.

“They sort of enjoyed it because it brought what they said were normal people, people without mental health issues, down to their level.

“Now, some guys have said to me that they’re starting to feel anxieties over the fact that, when we properly come out of the restrictions, everybody else is just going to get up and get on with their lives but they’re still going to be stuck where they were.

“We need to wait and see if that’s the case and we need to be ready for it.

“As long as people need us we’ll be there. If one person wants it, we’ll stay open as long as we can afford it.”

Males Tales, which has been granted community interest company (CIC) status, has helped more than 30 men from Helensburgh and Lomond and surrounding areas since it was established last November.

Offering peer support and advice, members thrive off of each other’s shared experiences, making the near seven-month shutdown of face-to-face meetings all the more difficult.

“We don’t take official registration,” John said, “that’s part of the deal because a lot of men don’t want people to know that they’re doing this.

“We’ve had between 30 and 35 people who’ve walked through the door at some point, and we’ve got a core group of seven or eight who go to almost all meetings. That’s between November and March before we were shut down. It could’ve been a lot more.

READ MORE: Males Tales mental health group partners with Helensburgh AFC

“One hundred per cent there’s an appetite for it. Between those 30-35 guys we’ve got people with various anxieties, depression, people going through transition, people who’ve openly spoke about sexual abuse, some people with PTSD, we’ve had a couple of guys who’ve admitted to trying to take their own life, including one quite recently, so almost the full spectrum of mental health issues have been mentioned.

“I think the male only thing to allow guys a space to speak out, where male bravado isn’t needed and they don’t need to bend their ego as much, is obviously showing that it is needed.

“We’ve been running Zoom chats which started off quite well but then dropped off a bit. We’ve got guys who go to addiction meetings as well and they like the Zoom meetings because they feel more comfortable sitting in their own living room or bedroom, and I get that, but, from our point of view, our guys seem to feed off each other’s emotional space. Humanity and the social side of it is a massive thing.

“We have been getting guys joining the Zoom meetings but by mine and their self admission it’s just not the same. It’s as good as we can do just now, we haven’t been allowed to do anything better, but it’s not as powerful as sitting next to somebody who’s telling you how they’re feeling.”

READ MORE: 'Help is available if lockdown is affecting your mental health,' says Helensburgh group's founder

For 21-year-old member Kieran Caldwell, Males Tales has been an invaluable source of aid, so much so that the engineering technician from Dumbarton has joined the group’s new committee to lead its future development.

He said: “I joined in November last year as I was going through some mental health problems and I’m in the Navy so I spoke to John and he told me about the group.

“I came along and ever since then I’ve been brand new. The fact that it’s not too professional, in a way, it’s very casual, means you can say what you want and you won’t be judged. It’s nice to feel like that.

“Some of the other members have experienced what you’re going through, and you can see how they’ve dealt with it themselves. There were a few lads there who had the same kind of thing as me and they’ve told me how they’ve dealt with it, so that’s helped me 100 per cent. Now and again I’ll have wee anxiety problems but the group has definitely helped me.

“I missed the human contact during lockdown, it’s nice to be around people going through the same kind of thing. The Zoom meetings do help, though. Without them I think I’d be worse than I am just now. It is good just to talk to people and catch up.”

The group returned for its first physical meet-up since lockdown earlier this month - fuelled by a generous donation of free pizzas from an anonymous local lady - and Kieran says he will continue to attend, even if he feels his own mental health is stable.

He added: “There was a macho kind of stigma about joining, thinking ‘I don’t want to tell anybody I was there’, but for me it was more a case of worrying about burdening people with my problems.

“As soon as I came it was nothing like that at all, it was dead chilled, relaxed and everyone was there to help each other plus helping themselves as well.

“I’ll still attend the meetings even if I don’t need to, because I can help other people. I’m now part of the committee because the group has given me so much that I want to give back.”

John admitted that the group’s progress has taken him by surprise but said he is proud at how far it has come in its first year.

He said: “The word is starting to get out there.

“When I first started this that wasn’t where I was going with it, it was just going to be a little local voluntary thing. I’ve now opened up a bank account and the group is registered as a CIC and we’ve put a committee together. There are a lot of things going on now and it’s getting too big for me to handle on my own.

“It’s easy to say that it could’ve happened sooner, that could go for anything, hindsight’s a brilliant thing. But the fact that it’s here now is good.

“It’d be brilliant if there was one on every street, but the more of these type of groups the better.”

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