Josh Roberts: Breaking down the stigma around men’s mental health
One morning after a party, 26-year-old Josh Roberts woke up to discover that his mind had collapsed. Out of seemingly nowhere he began experiencing extreme anxiety, obsessive thinking and depression. It took years for him to accept what was happening and seek help. He’s now written a book, Anxious Man with a foreword by Stephen Fry, where he tells his story and tries to break down the stigma around men and mental health.
Josh spoke to The Beautiful Truth about his experience and how we can support each other’s mental health in the workplace.
“There’s so much to be grumpy and gloomy about in the world at the moment, but one of the things that is really positive and exciting is the public conversation about mental health.”
The Beautiful Truth: What is your mental health story?
Josh: Up until the age of 26, I was completely sound of mind. I started my career as a strategy consultant at Deloitte, and then went on to work in advertising, selling ads for The Times, the Sunday Times, and then at the Financial Times. It was a kind of normal twenty-something London experience; I was going out a few times a week, but nothing crazy.
Then I went to a friend’s leaving party in September of 2016. I went as a pretty normal, fun- loving person, and woke up the next morning to discover that my mind had collapsed literally overnight. From there, it was a pretty rapid descent into my subsequent diagnosis of a generalised anxiety disorder. That was four years ago. Since then, I’ve been focusing first of all on getting better, and then on writing and talking about that process.
TBT: We loved your book! In the opening chapter you discuss crying alone in the toilets. Can you tell us more about what led to those moments specifically?
Josh: There’s a couple of things that are really terrifying in the early days of having a mental health problem. Firstly, you think you’re the only person who’s ever experienced this; the sensations and thoughts in your head are so wildly different to what you think of as ‘normal’, that you’re terrified by the fact that it’s happening to you.
“One of the key challenges that we have – particularly with male mental health – is that people don’t realise when they have a diagnosable, treatable condition. So they suffer on, because in their mind, what is the alternative?”
The second thing, at least for me, was this overwhelming need or desire to kind of keep a lid on it and make sure that, while I might be disintegrating internally, externally I projected a certain way of being. The loos on the fifth floor became a place of refuge that I would go to almost flush out the emotion and the worry.
TBT: You say in your book that you actually did that for two years. We’re curious what it was that stopped you from reaching out for help sooner?
Josh: I didn’t know you could get help. One of the key challenges that we have – particularly with male mental health – is that people don’t realise when they have a diagnosable, treatable condition. So they suffer on, because in their mind, what is the alternative? You can’t get treatment for something that doesn’t exist.
You start trying to find the things that will make it go away instantly. I tried not drinking alcohol, exercising, going to sleep at certain times, drinking certain quantities of water, not drinking coffee, or tea. All these things started out as being well intentioned, but very quickly become akin to compulsions.
“Move from asking someone how they are as a piece of social performance, to asking them in order to listen and care about their answer.”
Another barrier to seeking help is the fear of what it would mean for my career. I was nervous about openly talking about the fact that I was in a bad place. I think that was probably another cause of the delay.
TBT: What was it like for you talking to your boss about your mental health?
Josh: The process of speaking to colleagues, and in particular speaking to my boss, was something that I worried a lot. I was working at the Financial Times at that point. I was on the banking desk, so it was a very male, blokey environment. But what I found was that my boss’s boss had experienced the problem himself. And my boss’s wife had experienced a period of mental illness. So in fact, there was an unexpected degree of empathy – amazing level of sympathy, that you wouldn’t have thought would be there from these guys.
TBT: That’s so encouraging to hear. How do you think businesses should be proactive about supporting employees’ mental health, rather than waiting for them to hit a wall?
Josh: When I think about the companies who are doing really well at dealing with mental health, it’s the companies who place the emphasis on prevention rather than cure. It’s much easier for businesses to focus solely on cure, because it means focusing on the 25% of people who will end up having these problems, rather than the 100% that could have these problems.
What does great prevention look like? Things like having reasonable policies when it comes to answering emails outside of working hours, being really protective over holiday time, putting in place reporting lines where people can talk openly about problems if they have them – things like that.
TBT: And as individuals, how can we better support our colleagues at work?
Josh: Well, it’s just being a really good friend and doing the basics really well. Ask the question. Move from asking someone how they are as a piece of social performance, to asking them in order to listen and care about their answer. That’s honestly one of the most powerful things you can do.
Even if they are having a terrible time and they don’t fess up to you, if you listen with empathy and you’re engaged in their answer, they’ll know that you’re someone who they can come to if and when they feel comfortable doing so.
Spotting for differences is also important. If someone who used to be an extrovert suddenly becomes an introvert or someone who used to be a fitness freak suddenly starts piling on the pounds, or whatever it is, they are signs that maybe it’s time to have a chat.
25% of us across the course of our lives will experience one of these problems. So when you start talking about this stuff, what you realise is you’re almost always pushing on an open door. Early intervention is everything. And it’s so much easier to take a colleague or a boss aside and say you’re having this problem than you would ever have imagined.