Men on the Northern Beaches need support to avert a mental health and suicide crisis, according to a community group.

Northern Beaches CARES Chair John Milham (main image) says up to one in four men face a mental health challenge, with many lacking emotional tools they need to find a way out of the dark places they find themselves.

“Around here, we’re often driven by corporate sensibilities. How much money have you got? What house? What suburb? What part of that suburb? Do you have the best house in that suburb? That’s the Northern Beaches.

“Underneath it is real suffering, we hide it or we refuse to see it. One of the ‘joys of crazy’ is that the blinkers are lifted. You see others like yourself. Your reality has shifted and the filters are pulled off.

“You’re not interested in what everyone else is doing. You’re interested in trying to seek the truth. You’re trying to answer questions that are not really asked like, ‘Why do I feel this bad? What’s going on? What is it? Why is this happening to me?’

“These questions drive dark thinking. When you ask those questions, you get answers that no one has shown you before. So you see your community in a very different light. It takes suffering to see suffering,” said Mr Milham.

Mr Milham said men can find themselves in a dark place as a result of an unexpected turn of events in their life, such as bereavement, divorce or a job loss.

“On the beaches, we became super good at all gathering together at times of great need to have a big group hug, talking about how terrible this all was, and then all quickly disappearing.

“Why is that? It’s so confronting. If you have thought about suicide, one of the challenges if you have no skills in processing that and dealing with it, if no one’s helped you come to a conclusion but you’ve managed to find your way out of that dark place, some short-term coping mechanisms aren’t particularly useful in the long-term.

“Some people focus on work and use it as a crutch but that is going to deliver poor results as you get older. Maybe they don’t have the same level of commitment or activity or they lose their job. What do you do when you no longer have the thing that kept you going?” asked Mr Milham.

According to Mr Milham, men can find themselves in the perfect storm of life changes without the tools or support network they need to manage the transition.

“When you’re young, you’re involved in your kids’ sport, you’ve got young kids that keep you occupied and focused. You’ve got that social network of parents. On the Northern Beaches that is massively important.

“What happens when you’re 45, work has reached some sort of plateau, it’s not the same meaningful, driven pursuit that it once was for you. You’re financially comfortable, but who cares?

“Your social network has fallen to bits, your friends have been divorced and you don’t know which one is your friend now, so you avoid both of them. Kids are finishing school, they don’t want to talk to you anyway.

“Your missus is free of her job keeping the house and kids running, she looks to you, and you’ve got nothing to offer. She says, ‘If you’re not relevant to me, I might go pursue my self-actualisation’. I’m focused on men, but this is true for both sexes.

“So a bloke is sitting there and his relationships are not strong with his kids or his family, and his friends are going through their own stuff. The social network he relied on was often his wife’s, that he just plugged into.

“His mates that he plays golf or goes to the rugby with, they’re about as useless as tits on a bull to deal with any kind of emotional or psychological issues. They’re probably going through their own issues and no one shares anything.

“That scenario is a perfect storm. We’re getting men who are deciding that all of those things that are creating a great deal of pain, has no way of being alleviated by anything he knows how to do.

“For the first time a man is faced with a pain that he cannot overcome. That often leads to a sense of, dark on dark, ‘I’m in a dark place, and I’m in the dark about what to do about it’. As a consequence, suicide is an option,” said Mr Milham.

Men experiencing distress may find themselves unable to properly engage with the systems designed to offer help, or according to Mr Milham, the system is poorly designed to meet them where they are when they are in need of help.

“We are responsible for saving ourselves, the government won’t do it. The system can do its best, but it has to commoditise the people it deals with, so you have to be as close to the next person and the last person as possible.

“So the system will not deal with you. Individuals will deal with you but they are restricted by the system to that commodity. I’m allowed to call you A, B or C but calling A and a half is not possible.

“We have to be responsible for our own care up to a certain point, and we need the system to be serving us, not for us to fit into the system. How do we do that? We take control. Who’s in charge of my mental health outcomes? I am.

“How does that become possible? First you build structures that are peer-led, and then fight every day to keep it that way. Northern Beaches is not a great place to be mentally ill. The average waiting time for a private appointment depends on the cost. For lower cost options, the waiting time can be six weeks. If you’re standing on a cliff’s edge it’s a long lead time to wait, and it all costs money.

“We need to operate at the cliff, not in the car park. We need to get to where men are and we need to take our toolkit. We need to say, ‘Stop, this is a toolbox talk, and I’m going to show you how to use these tools, so that you stay safe on the job’.

“It’s other men and other members of their groups and communities that see them. If you can see them, you can teach them and you can care for them, if you’re motivated to love them. Why aren’t we then saying, that’s where we need to create the structures to save them,” explained Mr Milham.

John Milham, Chair of Northern Beaches CARES

Northern Beaches CARES is a community organisation that was established twelve months ago to act as a ‘tier four’ non-clinical community mental health service. The aim, according to Mr Milham, is to offer peer support and a safe space to have a conversation for people experiencing distress.

“Northern Beaches CARES is part of the Wesley Suicide Prevention Network. The idea is, communities are best placed to go out, find the assets in the community, bring them together, and allow community-led, peer-led solutions to some of the mental health challenges.

“In particular, suicide prevention, which has to be done before you reach clinical stage, it has to be community-led, because that’s where prevention operates. There are 121 of these community-led organisations around the country.

“The ultimate expression of our community care is a concept called Safe Spaces. What we want is what they call in the lived experience framework that was delivered by Suicide Prevention Australia, is a tier four, which involves completely being community-led and community staffed.

“We’re not a clinical setting. You’re not getting psychologists or doctors. Doctors may want to be involved, but they get involved as peers not as doctors. It’s the voice of lived experience and peer care that is available to every single person who walks in the door.

“It’s not a difficult concept to grasp but it’s a difficult concept to make happen. People fundamentally understand that when you’re not feeling good, a caring conversation with someone who is really there for you is powerful.

“It’s not about having a therapist, it’s about having a therapeutic experience, and having a conversation. Humans are designed neurologically to respond to conversation, communication with caring and unconditional acceptance.

“We have the capacity to train members of this community in care, peer care sought support, suicide prevention strategies, and trauma informed care,” offered Mr Milham.

The organisation is currently going through the process of registering as a formal not-for-profit so that it will be able to raise funds to enable it to find premises to allow men to drop in for conversations. Mr Milham is also looking for people who are willing to be trained to have those conversations.

“We’re going to put people in this space. Ultimately we want it to be available at any time, but clearly that’s a longer term aim. Now, we want to do a pop-up version, and start by showing everybody it works.

“I can see us having half a dozen Safe Spaces geographically and strategically placed to serve the whole population. With 260k individuals on the Northern Beaches, we know one in four are currently struggling with a mental health challenge that could lead to suicide. That means right now, we’ve got about 70k people who are going through something that is distressing enough to be a risk,” said Mr Milham.

Northern Beaches CARES is initially looking at setting up temporary Safe Spaces, with the aim to make those permanent as support for the concept builds. They recently had over 60 expressions of interest from people interested in staffing the Safe Spaces for peer discussions.

The group, which is supported by Northern Beaches Council, is looking to connect with volunteers interested in suicide prevention and improving men’s mental health. Northern Beaches CARES can be contacted via email or Facebook.

Images: Northern Beaches Advocate, Envato

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