Caleb Ryan didn’t talk about his mental illness for two decades. He didn’t tell his friends, or extended family. Even his long-term partner, the mother of his two young sons, didn’t know until until a couple of years ago.
Mostly, it was fear holding him back. Fear of being labelled. Fear of being stigmatised, of appearing to be weak. Fear that if he told people the truth, then his life would be irrevocably changed.
“And shame, as well – that it was not OK to be sick and to feel unwell,” he says. “I felt ashamed and worried I’d let people down and burden them.”
But a few months ago, Mr Ryan – a Drysdale teacher, writer and artist – gathered his immediate family and close friends together for a film night, screening for them a short movie he had made that told his story of intermittent mental illness and his lonely efforts to make himself better.
The response, he says, was “full acceptance, and support and love”.
Mr Ryan is calling for other men to stop being quiet and to talk about mental health issues the way they speak about physical health issues.
He is heartened by the bravery of Swans star Buddy Franklin and Geelong ruckman Mitch Clark, both of whom have made their private battles with mental health public.
“It’s a real issue that is absorbing a huge amount of resources especially when we’re not talking about it, because the problems become worse. And the amount of energy needed to pretend to be OK is enormous and adds significantly to the suffering.”
Mr Ryan’s experience of keeping his troubles hidden from his loved ones may sound extreme, but according to mental health organisations, it’s a very typical response among men suffering mental health problems.
Beyondblue says one in eight men will experience depression at some stage in their life, and one in five men experience anxiety. It says while women are more likely to experience anxiety and depression, men are less likely to talk about it, raising the risk of self harm and suicide.
The Black Dog Institute says men account for about 80 per cent of suicides in Australia.
It recently released a study, funded by beyondblue and The Movember Foundation, into men’s health that showed Australia’s “blokey” culture could be adding to the problem of men not seeking help.
It showed there are four consistent risk factors for men trying to take their own lives: a period of disrupted or depressed mood, unhelpful conceptions of masculinity (the ‘tough Aussie male’ stereotype), social isolation and at least one personal stressor such as unemployment or relationship break-down.
After keeping quiet for so long, Mr Ryan wants to talk to everyone who’ll listen about mental health. Later this month, he’ll run 42 kilometres through Geelong in an awareness-raising marathon he’s calling The Black Parade.
“Regardless of who we are or where we live, mental and emotional illness can affect us all.”