THE COVID pandemic and its various lockdowns brought into sharp focus just how isolation and breakdowns of our social connections can impact negatively on our mental health.
Anxiety and mood disorders such as depression affected people who had never experienced mental illness before.
But as we come out of the pandemic and return to normal lives, Men's Health Week (June 13-19) is a timely reminder that as a society we weren't exactly mentally fit pre-pandemic.
Northern Beaches men Gus Worland, founder of Gotcha4Life, Leroy Wiseman from youth mental health charity One Eighty's Open Up program and Tim Hewson from Mongrels Men - a grass-roots community based charity that aims to improve the physical and mental health of men - are part of a growing number of people and groups on the Beaches stepping up to address the issue and helping themselves and others to better mental health in the process.
At the top of the Gotcha4Life website in large capital letters are the words ZERO SUICIDES.
It's the not-for-profit foundation's vision and reason for being, but lower on the page are three stark statistics that highlight what they and other charities, foundations and professionals working and providing services in the area confront.
"Asking for help is the bravest thing you can do. It's not a weak thing to do which it was with the stereotypical Australian male and female," Worland said of the sadly still-entrenched attitude among many that you need to be stoic, not show emotions and solve your own problems.
"That's got us to the place we are today, losing seven blokes a day every day, two women ever day to suicide. Having an attempted suicide in Australia every 28 seconds.
"That's got to change, we've got to put a line in the sand and we've got to do better and the only way we do that is actually changing the way we react with people, changing the way that you talk to your friends, being real with them."
While suicide is the extreme response, there are many people in a lot of pain, making poor decisions and suffering in silence unnecessarily because they believe they have no one to talk to or a support network to point them in the right direction for help and treatment.
"Throwing away 'perfect', having the best possible real conversation with certain people is the only way that we can get through the type of stuff that life is throwing at us," Worland said.
"I've spent the last couple of years speaking to thousands of people who have tried to take their lives and are still with us. There are a couple of things they have in common. Every single one of them didn't want to die. That was the main thing, but they were in pain and they were tired.
"If you combine tiredness with real pain eventually you will end up making a really poor decision, especially when you are thinking about all those things just within your own head and you haven't got a village around you whether it's professionals or friends, family, a coach or a teacher."
Gotcha4Life runs presentations, training and workshops in schools, sports clubs, community groups, and workplaces to kickstart conversations around what it describes as mental fitness.
"We need to build some emotional muscle up so we can have a conversation, so you don't feel so lonely and feel fine to discuss things freely," Worland said.
"Build the mental fitness when times are going well so when things pop up. which you know they will especially as you get older, then you are much better prepared to be able to deal with it. Because there's a lot of people making really poor decisions.
"Show some more interest in the people you love, the people in your village. Life's too short to not ask the question. And if you ask one question then we are talking about a second, third or fourth question.
"Even if it feels a little bit vulnerable just stay in the conversation. I'd rather have an awkward conversation now than feeling I haven't helped a friend that needed it."
There was a slight drop in the suicide rate last year - 5.4 per cent, or 170 people less than the year before, but it the overall figure was still still over 3000 and there's plenty of work to do, Worland said.
"It's not just Gotcha4Life there are some really wonderful people all around the world, all around Australia, all around the Beaches doing their best to get this suicide rate down to zero."
One of those groups is Mongrels Men, which is addressing the alarming statistic that one-in-three men between the ages of 30-65 have no social connections.
"From my own experience, I wasn't doing much about creating social connections in my 30s. And it was only when I woke up in my 40s that I realised I hadn't created any apart from those my wife was driving and my kids were creating," Mongrels Men founder Tim Hewson said of the social group turned charity, which uses regular physical activity and exercise to provide an environment where men are able to talk freely and comfortably.
The group has run, walk, swim, surf, coffee mornings at Dee Why beach steps on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings, Queenscliff Beach on Wednesday morning as well as Thursday night social soccer at Seaforth Oval on Wakehurst Parkway.
ALSO READ: Don't let $12m economy boost go to waste
"We meet at Dee Why Beach steps at 6.15am. We have guys who walk, who run, guys that surf, guys who swim, some guys who meditate and some guys who just join us for 7am coffee," Hewson said.
'With a lot of our morning meet ups, it's always around a coffee and there is the opportunity to chat to get to know one another and the more they do that the more they feel comfortable and they dig a little deeper on the conversations.
"That's where the power out of the support ultimately becomes long term."
The genesis of Mongrels Men was a golf getaway with a few friends in 2008, which is now the annual Mongrels Masters Charity Golf Day - a major fundraiser.
It evolved to include social soccer on Thursday night and started to take its present form in 2019 when Hewson had gone through a divorce and faced mental health challenges of his own.
"I needed new social connections, I needed to exercise and take care of myself and I needed people around to encourage, support and do it with," he said.
The group receives referrals from various sources including the women in men's lives as well as health professionals.
"We are finding psychologists and counsellors who are saying to men:'we can deal with X-component here with treatment and cognitive behavioural therapy, but what you really need is to get out, get off the couch, do some exercise, meet new blokes and create new connections and create your own broader support networks outside of the physical therapy space'," Hewson said.
"Holistically having bigger, broader support can only be a good thing for those who are having challenges or those that just have trouble making new social connections."
When Leroy Wiseman read an article about former schoolmate Paris Jeffcoat establishing youth mental health charity One Eighty, he knew he must contact her and see how he could help.
"It galvanised me and it felt like a direct call to action," said Wiseman, who had lost a mutual friend with Jeffcoat to suicide. "I had also lost one of my best mates to suicide about a year before our mutual friend's death."
The deaths were not isolated cases and suicide remains the number one killer of young people.
"We were scared that it would continue to keep happening and we wanted to do something," Wiseman said.
"We started working together and it led to this Open Up peer support program. That was in October 2017 and I've been working with them ever since."
Wiseman manages the Mona Vale Open Up team, trains One Eighty's peer support workers and delivers peer support training to the community. He also talks to local high schools about what they do.
At the schools, Wiseman asks students: "If you knew your friend next to you was going through some challenges who would be there for them to listen to them and help them out?
"Every single hand goes up and then I ask them 'What if you were going through something and you needed to ask for help would you be comfortable to ask for your friend to help?' And two hands go up.
"There is this asymmetry between people being OK for others to open up and ask for help but not really do it themselves."
One Eighty offers free mental health training for community members and free peer support groups for young people with or without lived experience of mental ill-health. The peer support sessions are currently online and involve two support workers and participants from all walks of life aged 18-19 in an open discussion.
ALSO READ: Trying to survive extreme rental race
"There's a structure to it, we've had expert advisors that have come and assisted us with the structures," Wiseman said. "Basically there are some ground rules, it's anonymous, no one has to speak if they prefer just to listen. We have a group check-in where we go around the group and open up with each other talking about what is going on in our lives. We then assist people to connect with professional help or community services they might need or want."
Referrals go to Community Care Northern Beaches, which Wiseman said essentially acts as a central node to connect people with a wide network of social and health related services.
"At the end of the sessions we can connect young people with them and the other end there is social worker who can connect them to the appropriate service and sort it out for them," he said.
Prior to COVID, sessions were held in person at Mona Vale, Brookvale and Surry Hills and one session online via Zoom. The group is waiting advice from the board on the return of in person meetings but was keen to retain the popular online presence on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday as well.
More than 2500 young people have taken part in Open Up over the past four-and-a-half years and One Eighty has trained about 4000 people in mental health first aid and Lifeline's Accidental Counsellor training course.
"Mental health first aid breaks down in a step by step process how you can have a safe conversation with a person and arm yourself with the confidence and language to navigate the conversation to one of 'are you OK?' and get them some help," Wiseman said.
Have something to say? Send a letter to the editor at: email@example.com
Our journalists work hard to provide local, up-to-date news to the community. This is how you can access our trusted content:
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.