In a society where men’s mental health is still surrounded by stigma and silence, brave individuals like Ben Barlow are stepping forward to share their stories.
Ben’s journey began in a household marred by abuse, an environment that took a severe toll on his mental health as he grew into a young man.
“My journey with my mental health started probably around 13 to 14 – it’s likely that it was earlier, and I just didn’t know. It all started with domestic violence in the household.”
Ben recalls various occasions growing up which would later go on to impact his mental health and social relationships. He vividly remembers the feelings attached to the abuse and can still picture scenes from his childhood which he has tried time and time again to forget. Despite his attempts to “escape” what was going on at home, often removing himself from the home setting and “keeping himself out of the way”, when he was 14, things in Ben’s life came to a head.
After one specific account, Ben remembers saying to himself “I’m not going to continue living like this, this is not my future”, but following this, his mental wellbeing started to decline.
“I don’t think this really hit me until a few months after that, then it started to spiral from there,” Ben says.
In the months following, Ben began experiencing breakdowns while in schools and overwhelming waves of hopelessness.
He struggled sleeping, eating, and focusing. Every moment became consumed by unfamiliar emotions that he struggled to deal with, and at 15 years old, Ben made the first attempt on his life.
“It wasn’t until then I realised there was something really wrong,” Ben adds. “At the time I didn’t tell anyone about it. I didn’t want anyone to know I’d tried attempting suicide, but a few months later after I’d broken down in school once again, it ended up coming out and I told my head of year about what I’d done.
“They took me to my GP immediately, but he was amazing. He sat with me for over an hour and just listened to me while I talked.”
Following this, Ben’s GP helped secure him additional support from a mental health team which would be the first of three hospital admissions over the next three years.
Between 15 and 18, Ben undertook the therapy provided to him, spoke with various medical professionals and accepted the help offered, but he struggled to find peace with his suicidal thoughts. He made a further four attempts on his life, some of which he reached out for help for, others he kept to himself as he tried to find a reason for living.
Despite the absence of his dad, Ben’s family life didn’t improve by much, and at just 17 years old, Ben found himself homeless.
“Around 17, [Ben’s mum] moved to another town, and I haven’t seen her since. At the time I didn’t know what to do and I was angry she’d done that to me. Now I recognise that she was a victim too and I think she needed to get away, but I knew back then that I had to cut the relationship off for my own benefit. I didn’t want to be a victim anymore and continue being in this toxic environment. In this moment, I made the decision that I would have no contact with my mum and became estranged.
“I slept on a friend’s couch for a few months while I tried to figure things out, but I’d dropped out of sixth form, I didn’t know where I was going, and I was just in survival mode. Keeping busy was the only thing that helped me. My friend who took me in during this difficult time was a huge car enthusiast and I would spend a lot of time learning and helping with cars and I found a small escape through this.
“I was working dead-end jobs from 17 to 20, just stuff to help me get by and live on – nothing with purpose. I was in a robotic cycle of just keeping going as I didn’t want anyone to think less of me, except for the suicide attempts but after that I’d go straight back to just trying to stay alive and putting my head into everything, even though nothing felt like it had any purpose.”
After Ben’s second suicide attempt, he was diagnosed with Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD). The weight of his upbringing left him grappling with a sense of purpose and belonging and this diagnosis bled out into many facets of his life.
“I was adamant I wouldn’t make it to 18, especially after I got my diagnosis,” Ben says, “I’d done the research and read the facts around it, I was absolutely terrified, and I didn’t think I wanted to make it. I didn’t realise at the time, but it affected my relationships with men in general. I couldn’t pass my driving test, I done it over and over, but the nerves and fear would come over me, and I later realised it was because I was sat beside a man I didn’t know. There are things that it will affect for the rest of my life, but back then I didn’t know how to live with it.”
Ben clung to the hope of finding stability and meaning in his life. In 2020, he made the decision to return to college to gain a qualification that would enable him to work within the mental health sector, an area where he believed he could use his personal experience to help both others and him. However, the qualification soon proved not to be the right fit for Ben, and he felt he was once again back at square one in his journey.
Ben adds, “All I saw was paperwork and filling in forms when I wanted to be helping people and making a difference. This is not what I came into this for. Once again, I didn’t finish my degree and I went back into the same kind of jobs that were giving me no purpose.”
A year later, Ben was alerted of a vacancy that had just opened within a mental health charity, Mind. While the location was 1.5 hours away from his hometown, Ben recognised this as being the first step of a new chapter, and it wasn’t long until he accepted his offer and moved away from the place that held so many negative memories for him.
“The role was a ‘support upon discharge from in-patient setting peer support worker’ and I remember saying in my interview that if this was available when I was an in-patient, I’d have bit their hand off. It was just so amazing to use my own experience to help others. That was probably the ‘turning point’ for me if there was one. It felt like I’d finally found my purpose.
“It helped me grow as a person and in truth I think by helping others, it’s helped me. I moved out of my hometown and moved away from everything. I didn’t have to be the ‘suicidal kid’ anymore. At first it was hard, I still struggled and still do to some extent, but I knew I’d made the right decision. That move allowed me to start my career and start moving forward.”
The next year saw Ben grow not only in confidence and skill, but in his own personal growth and understanding. He learnt more about his condition and looked for ways to manage the painful thoughts when they arose. He began opening up about his story with people in the hopes of empowering others, and with this he realised the power his story had to inspire.
“A year after starting Mind, there was a suicide prevention event in the town centre, and I decided to speak at that event. That was the first time I had properly spoken publicly about my story in front of around 150 people. It ignited something in me and I knew I wanted to do more of it.
“I had always known I wanted to help; I just didn’t know how. But now I realise I want to use my story, I don’t care if it helps just one person, I want it to use it to make a difference. My experiences are my experiences, I can’t change them, and me not talking about them is not going to make them disappear.”
Since that first talk, Ben has now spoken publicly about his journey at various events, from mental health and suicide prevention fairs, to conferences, and even within the workplace. In January, he began his new role within the NHS where he is delivering ‘lived experience training’. His role sees him provide support for 18 – 25-year-olds that are in the process of moving from CAHMS to AHMS through training peers and equipping them with the skills needed to make this transition as supportive & as smooth as possible.
Ben continues, “I want to empower people and help peer supporters better understand people who are in situations like I was so they can better support people. When I look back, I know I never thought I’d ever be able to get to this point – both in general and in terms of understanding myself as well. The growth even from a couple years ago is massive.”
It has been over six years since Ben last made an attempt on his own life. Though he admits that the impact of C-PTSD still poses challenges, he has found a glimmer of hope for the future. Today he looks into the future, with plans to buy his own home with his partner and exploring ways he can further his career. He has recently pursued training qualifications, including ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training) and Mental Health First Aid, equipping himself with the tools to support those who may find themselves in similar situations. With a long-term vision of delivering these trainings himself, Ben is actively working to empower others and provide them with the guidance and support he so desperately needed in his darkest moments.
Ben’s journey has been marked by immense barriers and challenges, first presenting themselves back when he was a child, but he over recent years he has transformed his experiences into a beacon of hope. From his early battles with mental health at the age of 11 leading to six attempts on his life throughout the ages of 15 to 19, surviving an abusive childhood, and navigating his late teens and early twenties estranged from both parents, Ben has used the significant challenges no young person should have to endure alone to spread awareness and empower others.
“If I could speak to myself a few years ago, I’d say it’s not going to be like this forever. I’d remind myself that I was doing what was right for me and to put myself first because that was something I never did. I would remind myself that smooth seas don’t make good sailors and healing takes time.
“With my diagnosis, I am very aware that things are going to affect me throughout my life. There are still things that I am learning about myself now that I didn’t know a few years ago and sometimes that can be really hard and affect me but when I look at it now, I just remind myself that the worst has already happened and this too shall pass.
“My journey hasn’t been easy, but I know that all my experiences have made me stronger and pushed me to be better. “I am moving forward every day, and I am determined not just to be another statistic. I want to let people know that your story isn’t over yet. It’s okay to talk.”
To follow Ben’s journey, you can visit: BenTalksMentalHealth | Twitter, Instagram | Linktree