World Mental Health Day: Support group saves Stevenage man 'who had nobody to turn to'
PUBLISHED: 15:23 10 October 2019 | UPDATED: 16:39 10 October 2019
On World Mental Health Day, a Stevenage man has spoken of his journey out of loneliness thanks to the incredible support of mental health group Stand By Men.
For 51-year-old Robert Baker, just leaving his Stevenage bungalow can be a challenge.
Robert suffers from dyslexia and OCD, and faces a daily battle with hoarding and compulsive hand-washing - when feeling particularly anxious, he can wash his hands up to 25 times a day.
14 years ago, Robert was walking from The Oval shops in Stevenage when he was targeted in a random attack and was viciously beaten to the ground.
"It left me scared to go out of my front door. For a long time I felt terrible about myself," he said, recalling those years of fear and anxiety.
Robert is an active member of Stevenage mental health support group Stand By Men, a growing community of men - young and old - who meet every other week to talk about their mental health and discuss their lives.
"I first started going to the group in February," said Robert. "When I first met the guys I was feeling very lonely and isolated. I spoke to my nephew, who was a member himself, and he suggested I come and check it out.
"In the few years before, I had lost both my mum and stepdad. Mum had a heart-attack in 2015, and my stepdad died after a long battle with bowel cancer in 2017.
"Then, after losing contact with my sister, I suddenly found himself feeling very alone with nobody to turn to."
Robert says meeting up with the guys at Stand By Men changed his life, and finally gave him some confidence back.
"When I'm there, I just feel listened to. We're all men, and we're all in the same boat, which means we can be open and honest with each other.
"When you're helping others, it makes you feel better about yourself."
Stand By Men was founded in October 2018 by Terry McCauley and Ross Gormer, from Stevenage, and began as a group of five or six guys who met together to chat about life in a non-judgmental environment.
It has since grown into one of the largest community groups in Stevenage, with 3,200 Facebook members, and 40 men who regularly attend the bi-weekly sessions in Bedwell.
The group are hoping to be named a registered charity, and want to deliver talks in schools on the importance of discussing depression and anxiety among young men.
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Robert said: "From a young age, men are taught to be big and strong - and that is a stigma that we need to change.
"It's normal to talk about mental illness. Why should men have to suffer alone?"
The group have been buoyed by high-profile campaigns led by Prince Harry and Prince William, which have changed perceptions of how men talk about their mental health.
Prince Harry disclosed in 2017 that he had sought counselling 20 years after his mother's death, having come close to a complete breakdown several times.
Founder Terry said: "The group has grown into something much bigger than myself or any of the members.
"It makes me so proud to see some of the work we're doing for men in Stevenage, you wouldn't believe the change we're seeing in people.
"We give each other friendships, relationships and a purpose - a reason to carry on with life."
Terry, who has tragically lost eight friends to suicide, saw his own mental health spiral downwards after his best friend, Stuart Langley, passed away from cancer aged 29.
"For me, as it is for most men, it was an accumulation of things," he said.
"It can suddenly be the realisation that you have no one to turn to."
Terry, a scaffolder and lorry driver by trade, says there is a real problem with so-called "manly jobs" and the assumption that "we are always OK".
"I've seen big beasts of men - labourers, builders, landscapers - just breaking down in tears. It just goes to show, everyone has their problems - no-one is above it."
Stand By Men meets every two weeks on Mondays from 7pm to 9pm at the Bedwell Community Centre.
"If you feel like you're struggling - or just need someone to turn to - please, please come to one of our meetings," said Terry.
"Reach out to somebody. You can't keep things locked up. The best thing you can do is talk - that's what I've learnt."
To find out more about the meet-ups, and further events, visit the Stand By Men Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/groups/294319787899394/