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Striking Out The Stigma

Tom Harle talks to Josh Bew, Captain of the York First football team, about breaking the silence surrounding mental health

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Image: Will Palmer

It's early in the summer of 2015, the height of exam season. One of many, Josh Bew is sitting in the silent section of the library revising for his Maths exams. Nothing to see here, right? Wrong.

"Looking at the paper, I knew I could do the maths. It was simple. My brain physically couldn't work anything out. It was a constant nagging headache at the back of your head. It wasn't a disability but it was debilitating to the extent that I couldn't manage life," he pauses. "Because of the depression."

Josh struggled with mental illness for a year, beginning at the start of his first year at York. Now the captain of the University foot- ball first team wants to talk about his experiences.
Throughout his four years in the field of university sport, Josh has been known for his committed and physical approach as a striker. By most conventional measures, he's strong, but when we sit down to discuss his experiences it becomes clear that Josh has used every ounce of a different strength, an inner strength, to forge remarkable clarity in his relationship with mental health.

The Rotherham boy knows he was poorly equipped for the challenges of leaving home. "Maturity-wise, I definitely wasn't ready for university," he says. "I'd let a sheltered life and not had much life experience. It didn't help being thrust into university to live with strangers. Coming from an average school where you're the big fish, to going to university where you're average at best, is tough."

Unsurprisingly, the destabilising effects of losing a network of close friends and family have a clear correlation with student experience of mental health issues. Student mental health charity Student Minds referred this to the All-Party Parliamentary group on students in December 2015, and they are at the heart of much of the good work that goes on in flagging up student-specific issues.

Early on, Josh 'struggled' to spend lengthy times away from his mother to whom the experience of divorce had bonded him tightly. The former Sheffield Wednesday Academy player continued playing football, but lacked confidence to integrate socially with estab- lished friendship groups in the club, having joined late in his second term. "Playing foot- ball helped me get out there and meet people, but I kept myself to myself - which was a mistake. I didn't go and socialise. That alienated me a bit and I wasn't part of the big group of freshers."
My teammates stopped the rot in my life and helped me get back on the right path

Josh was swept along by first year, falling into relationships that bent him out of shape psychologically and saw him agree to live with a group of people that he had little in common with. This was a highly turbulent period for someone who clearly sees the certainty of home life as sacrosanct.

"I didn't have people who I could talk to about anything beyond the day-to-day, to negotiate the changes I was experiencing", he recalls. "Things started getting abrasive in my house and it wasn't an environment you wanted to be in. Home is supposed to be a sanctuary and it makes it more difficult to deal with anything if you don't feel you have that."

During this period of upheaval, Josh was competing for a highly successful UYAFC first team. The team gained promotion from their BUCS league in 2014 and reached a cup final. It was the name 'Bew' up in lights at Roses that year, as well, as his two goals secured a 2-2 draw for York in the opening ceremony at Lancaster.

But Josh's depression didn't care that he scored the equaliser in that game. It didn't see his success; it didn't feel his elation. Those moments could not have stemmed its tide, and within months it had consumed him. Josh's academic struggles in first year had forced a scramble towards resits, juggling revision with a full-time job back at home. This robbed him of the time to process the speed of change he was experiencing and this feeling festered. Packing up his boxes to move back into halls, after relationships with his second-year housemates had collapsed, that night in Lancaster couldn't have felt further away.

Moving back into accommodation in Alcuin only plunged Josh back into another environment that exacerbated his symptoms of mental illness. "I was back on my own again with people who were only there because they were on their own and didn't have anyone else to live with," he remembers. "It wasn't a nice experience living in the house, but at least you had some human contact.

"In halls, you could easily not see another human being for a whole day and nobody would say anything. Nobody would notice." Josh's mouth clams up, and he reaches for a glass of water.

"That made my depression much worse, being so lonely, and I felt it acutely at that point. I couldn't handle going and sitting in lectures. I struggled with my degree. I didn't really have friends on the course."

There was something that helped, though. "Going out and playing football kept me here. It gave me an outlet and helped me start to forge the friendships I needed to get through university."

Image: Maria Kalinowska

The day after sitting down with Josh, I am drawn to former YUSU Wellbeing and Community Officer candidate Tom Underwood, and the testimony he delivered as part of Mind Your Head's Mental Health Awareness Week on campus.

Though on the face of it, Josh and Tom are more different than they are alike - Josh is a strapping Yorkshire lad whose main hobby is kicking opposing defenders as far as he kicks a ball, while Tom is a spindly Pembrokeshire boy who plays underwater hockey - what is significant is that which connects them. They have both summoned it in themselves to take a public platform and share their battles with depression.

Tom speaks with moving candour about his trials, from his parents' denial of his mental illness to his tribulations with the NHS and the clumsiness of their methods. Although he began to experience symptoms of depression from a much younger age than Josh, there are two crucial convergences that rise out of both accounts; namely, the importance of sharing your story with others, and the strength of the link between mental and physical health.

"That's the most important part of the process: co-operation," Tom affirms. "Get- ting out of such a negative pattern, a down- ward spiral, is almost impossible on your own. Having someone to talk to forces you out of that way of thinking, and walking into the clinic that day was the best choice I ever made." Josh sought help from his GP, who put him on a course of medication, and several appointments with the University's Open Door team.

Between 2010 and 2015, when the Graham Report into mental health was published, demand for Open Door appointments increased by a staggering 46 per cent. At the time, two students in every seminar of average size would have attended more than one on-campus consultation. The university's recent pledge to spend £500 000 on improving mental health services at the institution is therefore a much-needed injection.

While Josh found the meetings he did manage to arrange with Open Door to be useful, he reiterates the view that it is "over- subscribed" and that there "aren't enough" counsellors to deal with ever-growing student numbers. The knowledge that he could take fellow football club members into his confidence about mental illness as hugely significant.

"When it all kicked off and I left my house, I spoke to Dave Belshaw and Joe Easter who were in the year above me playing in the first team", he says. "When I was in the process of moving out I spent a night over there and Joey cooked for me. He cooked lasagne, it was a nice little romantic meal - me, him and his girlfriend," he laughs. "They would help me try to work out the next steps to improve my situation."
There is that macho element...You have to show you're strong and can't really show weakness

The team's support only grew from there. "Guy Bowden (Club President) knew about it and made sure there was nothing on the training side of things that was going to antagonise the depression. They just stopped the rot in my life and helped me get back on the right path."

"The club has given me a lot without realising it", Josh ponders. "It is like a family. You join the club and have 40-odd lads who will do anything for you."

Joe was a talented midfielder who created many goals for Josh with his delivery from free-kicks and corners, but he did a lot more than that for his mate in the end. When we catch up on the phone, Joe remembers much about his team-mate's mental state at the time.

"He's quite an aggressive player. He likes to pick an enemy and you could tell that every little thing seemed to be against him", he tells me. "[Josh] was obviously not particularly happy. I think Dave, Guy and I were older and it helped him to be able to talk to peo- ple that, in a small context, were in relative positions of authority. There weren't any mas- sively noticeable changes in his behaviour. He wasn't erratic, you could just tell things were getting to him.

"It's really nice to hear that it helped him," Joe adds. "It's the sort of thing that we assume a friend could be able to tell us, but it can go unsaid it times."

That such conversations happened at the time they did was absolutely crucial. Somerset cricketer Craig Overton recently spoke emotively about losing his friend, Warwickshire player Tom Allin, who committed suicide earlier this year. Craig has had to come to terms with the fact that he never started such a conversation and now he won't ever be able to. None of Tom's friends in sport knew what he was going through.

Image: Will Palmer

For Josh, the relationships he had with his team-mates helped insulate him from potential problems in the dressing-room. If he didn't feel able to come to training or go on a team social, there wouldn't be any questions asked.

Josh has clearly found the club to be generally understanding of his situation - but he insists that there remains a stigma attached to mental illness in certain environments. "There were never any negative comments, nothing like that at all," he asserts, but "I think there is still a stigma of being open about what has gone on. I only felt like I could talk to a very select set of people. There is still a worry of judgment. That's not just in football, that's in the wider population as well."

There remains a stigma attached to mental illness in certain environments

He goes further: "There is that macho element. You have to show you're strong and can't really show weakness. There are a lot of egos. That's not always bad but it can make it a lot harder to open up. It grinds you down, knowing that there is something wrong but not being able to show it to the outside world." This stigma will remain in York's sports clubs as long as society struggles to find a way of making mental health something to talk to people about, as well as merely discuss in general terms.

By telling his story in this way, Josh is bringing forth exactly what he suffered with remarkable bravery. "I felt like I was living a lie, until I accepted what was happening to me," he explains. "I felt like I wasn't being true to myself and to other people. Although I've had people to talk to, I'd still feel I was hiding it."

The link between physical and mental wellbeing is a well-drawn one, but it cannot be made often enough. Josh underlines that his work to keep himself fit in the summer of 2015 helped immeasurably in setting his mind right for the task of resitting the whole of his second year.

In a study by Minds in Sport in 2014, 91 per cent of those surveyed felt that regular physical activity improved their confidence and self-esteem, while 82 per cent believed it helped allay incipient depression. Following this, York Sport Union's 'Staying on Track' campaign ran a series of profiles on social me-dia of sporting figures at the University and their relationship with their mental health.

Even in an academic sphere, the storytelling approach is recognised to be an effective tool in reducing isolation and it is vital that the likes of Josh feel comfortable in sharing their experiences. The Sport Union will continue its efforts to keep mental health on the agenda here, with charity York Mind set to have a significant presence at the Roses tournament in April.The link between physical and mental wellbeing is a well drawn one

To go further, it must ensure that those suffering from mental health disorders are factored in at every stage of their participation. The University of Birmingham has set up a badminton scheme which is only open to students registered with the in-house mental health service, with a trained professional present at every session. Such programmes should be shouted from the rooftops, but you have to burrow to a corner of the BUCS website to find details. Now well into his fourth year of his degree, Josh is able to look back on depression as something in his past, and hopes that agreeing to talk about it can encourage others to come to terms with how they are feeling.
The link between physical and mental wellbeing is a well drawn one

"A couple of the freshers have asked me why I'm still here in my fourth year and I've not shied away from telling them the truth", he explains. "Talking about it now lets other people that are suffering know that they need to spot the signs so it doesn't continue. At the time, you can't see it happening. You can't imagine what it could feel like to be alright again. It might to take a while, but you can do it." He stops. "That's why I agreed to talk about this. It's not until people actually come out and talk that others will begin to stand on their own two feet. To say for themselves: yeah, I suffered from depression."

Whether in the corner of en-suite room in Alcuin, or in the corner of the dressing-room of a top university sports team, Josh can only add his voice to those that implore anyone suffering in silence to ask for help. Because it really will get better.

If you or anyone you know is affected by any of the issues raised in this article, there is support avaliable at:
Student Minds: studentminds.org.uk Nightline: 01904323735 Open Door: 01904324140 student-support@york.ac.uk

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2 Comment

Gary Williamson Posted on Sunday 5 Apr 2020

Well done Josh for speaking out, telling your story and your experience's will help others understand their situations and hopefully give them the strength to reach out for help.


Anonymous Posted on Sunday 5 Apr 2020

This is very accurate and eloquent. Thank you for writing this. I hope it is widely shared . Well done and good luck for your future. I know a number of young people who had a similar experience. By speaking out and being so honest, I know you shall help many


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