A personal message for this year’s stress awareness month from our founder Neil Shah

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WARNING: The content of this article explores the impact of suicide and may not be an easy read, and may trigger some.

This year we mark ‘Stress Awareness Month’ for the 30th year in a row. I’ve been head of The Stress Management Society for almost two decades now, and we have been committed since our inception to making the world a happier, healthier more resilient place. This isn’t just my job, it’s my ikigai- my very reason for being.

The 1st of April marks the beginning of this month-long annual campaign to shine a light on the importance of managing stress and increasing our resilience long before it affects our mental health or causes mental illness.

I normally kick off the month by sharing words of wisdom and inspiration, promoting self-care and practical things we can do to better equip ourselves to cope with the ever-increasing demands of modern life.

Sadly not this year. I don’t feel in a place to offer an uplifting message as I am emotionally broken. What I can offer is a heartfelt plea, vulnerability, authenticity and honesty. This may not be an easy read, and that is why it was so necessary to share my thoughts. As hard as it may be to read it, it was even harder for me to write it.

The 1st of April was one of the most emotionally challenging days of my life, and it broke me. Even though myself and my team have had the opportunity to help millions of people over the last few decades, I tend to judge myself on the failures rather than the successes.

On the 1st of March, one of my best friends sadly took his own life. On the 1st of April, we celebrated his life, said our final goodbyes to him and put him back into the earth. I can’t imagine my heart will ever heal from this.

My tears still continue to flow like an endless river. I am devastated, and I feel like a fraud and a failure.

His name is Daniel, he was only 41, he was a talented musician, the kindest, most caring, gentle loving soul you would ever be blessed to meet. He was always happy, with a smile and a hug for everyone he crossed paths with. He had dreams of building his property business so it could sustain him to focus on his true passions of creating music and the desire to have a family. He was loved by many and his music inspired all that were blessed to hear it. He was deeply spiritual and would do anything to help and support others.

However, beneath the smile, there was pain and anguish that were easy to miss behind such an outwardly joyful and sunny exterior. As with many people, life was getting heavier and harder to navigate. The challenges of the last few years became too much to bear, and the emotional pain overwhelming. The darkness eventually became too much for him. He tragically sought a permanent solution to the temporary challenges he faced. I feel like I failed one of my best friends and having to say goodbye was one of the hardest things I have ever done. A tragic and unnecessary waste of such a beautiful life, one that had so much left to give.

Dan’s story is devastating, however, sadly it is not a rare and isolated experience. Suicide is more common than any of us would care to believe. Men are three times more likely to commit suicide than women and the highest rate of suicide in the UK is amongst men aged 45-49 (ONS, Office for National Statistics, 2020). In fact, suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45 and every day there are around 18 suicides per day in England and Wales (ONS, Office for National Statistics, 2020).

14.3% of global deaths are due to the wholly preventable mental health pandemic. Even though it’s such a big killer, we don’t have round the clock news coverage highlighting the prevalence of this global issue. We currently have round the clock news coverage of a war – and I am in no way diminishing this tragedy, I would just like to give context.

Approximately 50,000 people died of all wars on the planet in 2020, and we lost around 400,000 to murder. The annual number of global deaths due to suicide is closer to 1 million. Even though this is the case, we don’t have round clock news sharing cases of mental ill-health, or deaths due to it.

What does this suggest? That not all lives are equal. The mainstream narrative seems to suggest human lives lost due to the recent pandemic or war have more value than those that are lost to mental health.

When will we say enough is enough? When will we stop burying our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, our sons and daughters? When will we care enough to actually do something meaningful to take action?

We still have a huge stigma attached to the subject. The guilt and shame associated with it prevent people from opening up and seeking help. We have the backdrop of a culture of ‘Toxic Masculinity’ – phrases like ‘Grown men don’t cry’, ‘Pull your socks up and get on with it’, ‘Man up’ and ‘Soldier on’ amongst others prevent us from reaching people earlier enough to prevent more serious issues.

So instead of hiding and just pretending I’m ok or putting on a brave face and being strong, I wanted to open up and be authentic, share my feelings and be willing to be raw and vulnerable. My heart is broken, I will probably never heal from this, and there will be a Dan sized hole in my life for as long as I live.

As a society we are failing our most vulnerable members as far too many are lost to mental ill-health. This cannot continue. My dear friend’s life will not be lost in vain, I will ensure his tragic passing will mean something. I can’t bring him back, however, I can do my best to prevent any more people from losing their lives unnecessarily due to this pandemic.

The good news is there is a vaccine, a cultural one – it’s a mixture of love, compassion and empathy. Unless we can destigmatise mental health challenges and remove the guilt and shame associated with it; many more lives will be lost. When we understand the importance of community and interdependence, we can start building our societies to rise together and we can reach people that are suffering mentally and emotionally long before they give up on life.

If enough of us commit to making things better, change can happen quickly. Every one of us has a part to play, I cannot do this by myself. It starts by us being willing to talk about it and raise awareness, by lobbying those in power to take meaningful action.

As much as I am devastated, the only way I can prevent myself from going down a dark road is by doubling down on everything I have been fighting for since I found my mission in life. And that mission was borne from my own experience of a breakdown and attempted suicide. I know all too well what it’s like to be in a position where you believe you have nothing left to live for. Thankfully I failed and it helped me to find a purpose to my life. I’d like to believe my life now means something.

The theme for stress awareness month is ‘Community’ and this is where change starts – whether that community is your family, your neighbourhood, your workplace, your country or a global community. Strong, supportive communities are the antidote that we need. As more and more people feel lonely and isolated by the highly individualistic modern existence, the more their mental health will decline. We fall by ourselves, however, we can rise together.

So it’s a simple choice – we can become part of the solution by doing our bit to have uncomfortable conversations, by raising awareness of the issue, by lobbying for change, and by showing love, compassion and empathy to all – for you never truly know what people are going through. Or we become part of the problem, by ignoring, suppressing, overriding, denying and diminishing the issue.

Can I count on you? Will you commit today to make things better, so no more lives are needlessly lost? Will you do your bit to build community? It doesn’t cost anything, there are no side effects, and the only consequences are we do more to reach people that are struggling and we raise the connection and sense of belonging that many of us lack in our lives.

I have faith in our ability to do better and I won’t rest till the shocking numbers I shared in this message are a fraction of what they are now (at worst) or are zero (at best).

All statistics seem abstract, until you or someone you love becomes a part of it. Dan Travis’ story is more than another sad story or a statistic. He was my brother. He helped many people when they were struggling and frequently raised money for charities during his lifetime. Yet, he wasn’t able to help himself nor get the help he so desperately needed in his own hour of need. He always seemed so strong and cheerful which meant people didn’t realise what a dark place he was truly in. Remember his name and let it be the turning point in our battle against indifference, stigma and social isolation. Let’s come together and encourage each other to seek and offer help as a community. He also recorded a song that feels fitting to share at this moment as it very much sums up the sentiment of this message.

If you are struggling to cope, please call Samaritans for free on 116 123 (UK and ROI) or contact other sources of support, such as those listed on the NHS’s help for suicidal thoughts webpage. Support is available round the clock, every single day of the year, providing a safe place for anyone struggling to cope, whoever they are, however they feel, whatever life has done to them.

The International Association for Suicide Prevention has a list of global agencies that may also be able to provide immediate support.

In the UK and Ireland:

The Samaritans are open 24 hours a day. Call 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org

The Campaign Against Living Miserably (Calm) offers support to men. Call 0800 58 58 58 between 17:00 and 00:00 every day or visit their webchat page here.

In the US:

If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

In Australia:

Call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or chat online, nightly seven days a week.

In Canada:

If you are in crisis, call 1-833-456-4566 (4357) or text 45645. For more information about suicide prevention, visit Centre for suicide prevention.

Thank you for taking the time to hear me in this moment of great pain.

With love,

Neil Shah
Chief De-stressing Officer @ The Stress Management Society

Post solely for the use of stress.org.uk by Anja Predojevic