Wednesday 24 November 2021

I'm Having a Good Day: Connection and Conversation Inspired by International Men's Day 2021

How goes it?

I’m having a good day. Was on an excellent call this morning about men’s mental health and support groups. Got my MHFA Network call this afternoon too.


That little exchange is from a chat conversation with my friend Brynn last Thursday lunchtime. I’d been pretty low for a few days, which she knew, but when I sent those words I was feeling much better. Being able to say that to my friend was important in itself, because it reminded me there are good days as well as rubbish ones. So what had made the difference? In a word, connection.

The morning session I mentioned was organised through the Men’s Network at work, ahead of International Men’s Day (November 19). The call was led by Gary MacDonald, who founded the Mind the Men peer support group in Glasgow, Scotland, in memory of his cousin Grant Macdonald who was lost to suicide in 2018. The group provides men “a safe place to talk about their challenges be listened to and feel supported.”

The presentation began with some statistics about men’s mental health, including the fact that 75% of people who die by suicide are men, and that suicide is the largest cause of death in men under fifty years old. I’m not a huge fan of stats; I find them hard to hold in my head or relate to directly, but I agreed with a colleague who messaged me privately while Gary was speaking: these numbers are shocking, scary, and unacceptably high.

Gary talked about founding Mind the Men, and how the weekly group sessions provide an opportunity for men to come together and share as much or as little as they feel comfortable doing. The six questions he and his fellow facilitators use to structure the support sessions reminded me of Andy’s Man Club, which operates similar groups across the UK. He spoke movingly of the positive changes he’s seen in some of the men attending the groups, but it’s not only the men who benefit. Their families, friends, and co-workers do too. Gary made a point of acknowledging the support and encouragement of the women — girlfriends, wives, partners, mothers, sisters, aunts, grandmother’s — in the lives of the men who attend.

I came away from the call moved and feeling that maybe — maybe — I might check out Andy’s Man Club or a similar men’s support group if I can find any local to me. As a man who has never felt fully at ease in male company, and rarely felt part of the wider “man clan,” that feels significant. It was at this point in my day that I took my lunchtime walk, and messaged Brynn. We had a video call, and I shared more about Gary’s talk and how positively it had impacted me.

After returning home, I prepared for the fortnightly call I facilitate with fellow Mental Health First Aiders at work. Due to holidays and various work commitments, it was six weeks since we’d last got together. I had very little news to relate, and wondered how we’d fill the hour if the others didn’t have much to share. Five regular attendees had sent apologies, which didn’t reassure me at all! As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. It was one of the best calls we’ve ever had.

I dialled in a few minutes early and found one of my fellow male Mental Health First Aiders eager and ready to go. We exchanged pleasantries and waited for others to join. Five minutes past the official start time there were three of us on the call — all men — so I made a start. We were joined shortly afterwards by another male colleague. I smiled to myself: it’s rare for me to find myself talking to a group of only men. It felt appropriate, though, as I mentioned International Men’s Day and described a few of the wellbeing and mental health calls I’ve attended in recent weeks, I was talking about Gary’s presentation on men’s peer support when a fifth — female — colleague joined us. I mentioned a statistic from Gary’s talk which (if I recalled it correctly) suggested less than a quarter (23%) of men have close networks of friends. This led to a brilliant discussion about how easy or otherwise people – men especially – find it to open up to others (family, friends, colleagues etc) about what’s troubling them. The rest of this post is based on notes I took during the call, with names changed.

We started off talking about who we feel most comfortable sharing with, whether that’s friends, partners, other family members, or professionals such as doctors, therapists, or counsellors. Some said they tend only to share when things get especially bad. I could relate to this, because it’s only in the past ten years or so that I’ve started talking about what’s going on for me (and even more recently that I’ve started blogging about it). Prior to that I tended to keep things to myself. Instead of talking to others, I’d process whatever was going on for me in the pages of my diary. I still journal on a daily basis, but nowadays that’s in addition to talking to people I trust and feel safe with.

Jane said she finds it easier to listen to and help others, than talk about her own situation, which I could also relate to. We talked about how helping other people is valuable and important, but that it can lead to an unhealthy codependency where we need to have people around us — family, friends, co-workers — who need our support in order to feel good about ourselves. This is something I’ve struggled with at times, as I’ve written previously. We agreed everyone is different and no one should feel they have to share with others if they don’t want to, as long as they have other coping strategies that work for them. The important thing is to have people we can call on if and when we want or need to. Our support networks can be of different kinds, as I discussed in a recent blog post.

Malcolm mentioned some of the cultural influences he’s experienced, regarding how acceptable it is — or rather isn’t — for men to admit we need help, for fear of being perceived weak or inadequate. John mentioned the tv drama The Sopranos, which I have to admit I’ve never seen. I hadn’t realised there was a strong mental health thread running through the series until John shared how the character of Tony Soprano battles anxiety and depression, and goes for therapy, but is unable to be honest about his struggles because of the macho male culture he inhabits.

It was really good to have Jane on the call, especially in the context of this year’s International Men’s Day theme of “Better relations between men and women.” I think she found it interesting too, as it gave her the opportunity to ask how things are for us as men. It felt odd to be asked to give my thoughts on behalf of men as a whole, but I think the others felt similarly about it.

Jane asked if there’d been a particular turning point that lead to us overcoming the “man up,” “big boys don’t cry,” “grow a pair” narrative which sadly is still prevalent in society. For Colin, it was something that “just happened” during a chat conversation with a family member. We talked about how important it was that his family member had picked up on what he said, rather than dismissing it or moving the conversation on. That’s something I’ve learned with Fran and other friends. It’s important to pay attention to what someone is saying, and not ignore something that might be a sign they’re struggling or simply want to share what’s going on for them.

I don’t always get it right and there have been times when I’ve failed to pick up on the clues, but I believe I’m learning. I’m still not very confident letting people know I’m low or struggling, and I know how it feels if the person I’ve chosen fails to pick up on my tentative attempts to share. The onus is on me to be clearer about asking for help, but that’s not always easy, especially if I can’t identity — or express — what’s happening. Sometimes I just want to let someone know I’m feeling low, stressed, anxious, or whatever.

In answer to Jane’s question I said there hadn’t been a single turning point for me, but I’d learned the benefits of opening up from being a supportive friend to Fran and other friends over the past ten years or so. I saw how it helped them to have a safe space in which to talk, vent, or otherwise share what’s happening, and realised could it help me too. Talking gives me a different, outside, perspective, and the opportunity for people to suggest approaches I might never have thought of myself.

Jane also asked if we found it easier to share with people face-to-face, as opposed to in other ways. Colin said he follows a number of sports-related accounts on Twitter, and he’s seen plenty of examples where someone has tweeted that they’re not doing too well, and there’s been a really positive supportive response. That’s something I see a lot on Twitter and other social media, although I mostly follow mental health and creative journaling accounts and hashtags.

I said I have some friends where we can share openly and honestly on chat or social media, and others which rely on voice and video calls, or face-to-face meetings now those are possible again. In my experience, it depends more on the personal preferences of the people concerned, rather than whether they’re male or female. Having said that, the vast majority of people I talk to, online and offline, are women, so my experience may not be universal.

Overall, we agreed that while there may be gender differences in how readily men and women share with others, and with whom, cultural factors and personal preference can be just as important. Our conversation was a perfect example of how important, challenging, and rewarding it can be to talk about how we’re feeling, and explore the difference and the similarities between us. We were having such a great time that that when the hour was up we agreed to reconvene next week to continue our discussion!

I’m grateful not only to my fellow Mental Health First Aiders who took part on our MHFA Network call, but also to Gary MacDonald and everyone involved in organising the programme of events and discussions this week for International Men’s Day. I’ll close by sharing four articles I’ve written in the past about men’s mental health in general and my own in particular.

Men and Mental Health: Resources & Heroes

Dear Marty: An Open Letter to Myself


Return to Down: How My Baseline Mood Has Slipped from Positive to Low


Photo by Kaleidico on Unsplash.


Wednesday 17 November 2021

Spokesfriends and Insular Groups: What Kind of Support Network Do You Have?

Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one. – Jane Howard

It’s no secret that I take friendship seriously. Just about everything I write, including this blog and the book I co-authored with my best friend Fran, concerns the nature of supportive friendships. In High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder we describe the part I play in Fran’s wider support network, and how it’s important for me to have a network of my own. Until now, though, I’ve scarcely written about supportive networks themselves.

At different times, Fran’s network has included close friends, her psychiatrist and doctor, therapists, a care coordinator, and an Independent Support Services worker (homemaker). Mine consists exclusively of trusted friends. Yours might be a combination of family, friends, colleagues, or professionals. I’m focusing on friends in this article, but it’s the connections between the people in your network that count, rather than their role or relationship to you. Put simply, do they know each other or not?


If I drew my network out on paper there’d be a dot in the middle representing me, with lines radiating out to each of my supportive friends, like the spokes of a wheel. I’m reminded of a joke I saw on social media: “A friend of mine works for a company that makes bicycles. He’s their spokesman.”

This kind of network is more likely if your friends live far apart, as mine do, although that’s not necessarily the case. A few of my “spokesfriends” have met, in person or online, but none of them know each other well or socialise.

Insular Groups

In contrast, Fran has several small groups of friends, most of whom live locally to her. Within each group, people know one another and call or meet up more or less regularly. Fran’s support network could be drawn as a number of overlapping circles, plus me and a couple of others who aren’t in any of her groups of mutual friends.

A friend described these groups as insular, in the sense of “relating to or from an island.” It’s particularly appropriate for Fran, who lived for years in the kind of small island community where everyone knows everyone else. Insular groups, then, are groups of friends who know each other and keep in touch.

If family members are part of your support network, they likely form an insular group, as may local friends, workplace colleagues, or people you met at school, college, or other organisations.

Pros and Cons

Neither kind of network is necessarily better than the other. There are differences, though, in how they operate when you are supporting someone or needing support yourself. Understanding these differences can help you figure out what’s happening if problems arise. Let’s take a look at them in turn.

Insular Groups In Practice

This post was inspired by a recent conversation with a friend. My friend — I’ll call her Sarah — described a time when she’d been concerned about someone she suspected was struggling. Sarah wanted to help, but her friend wouldn’t speak to her about it or ask for support. Instead, her friend told others in their circle of friends, who then shared their concerns with Sarah. “They were warning me something needed to be done,” she said. “But at the same time telling me not to let [her] know they’d told me.”

It was very isolating for Sarah to have learned something about her friend’s situation, yet have to pretend she didn’t. As she told me, “It was particularly hard when she’d told them some things and they assumed I knew, because I didn’t want them to know how difficult she was making it for me by shutting me out.”

Sarah’s story illustrates the advantages and disadvantages of insular networks. If you need help, you have people you can turn to, who know you and each other. If it’s another member of the group who needs assistance, you don’t have to do it all on your own. You can share the caring responsibility, discuss the best way to help, and support each other though what might be a difficult situation. Sarah said her circle was very helpful in discussing and arranging support for the person who was struggling.

On the other hand, it can be hard to maintain boundaries of trust, respect, and confidentiality. Things can become awkward if some people in the group know more of the story than others, or have been told different or conflicting versions. There’s also the potential for miscommunication and differences of opinion as things are passed on or discussed back and forth. As another friend expressed it, “If your friendship group is insular, you can get caught up in the arguments, regardless of who they are between. If your friends are not insular, you don’t have that issue.” Sarah found it helped to discuss things with me. “It’s good to have friends like you who are out of the circle,” she said. “I’d never have got through that situation without your support.”

The person needing help can also run into issues. Fran likes to talk things over with friends if she’s struggling over something, but on occasion she’s had to handle the fallout from telling several people who know each other and have gone on to discuss it amongst themselves.

Spokesfriend Networks In Practice

In a post titled Belonging (Longing to Be) I shared that I’ve never truly felt I belonged to any group or tribe. A spokesfriend network works for me. I feel supported by people who care about me but are essentially independent of one another.

I’m blessed with friends who I love fiercely and who love me fiercely in return. Several know each other but these are individual one-to-one connections rather than a group of mutual friends.

My friends know me in different ways and to different degrees. If I’m struggling, unsure, or simply need to talk things over, I’m free to choose the person most likely to help or understand. I can even discuss the same thing with two or more people to get their different perspectives, confident that the conversations will remain separate.

It’s not that I don’t trust my friends to keep things private. I trust each of them implicitly — although if they were sufficiently concerned about me I’d expect them to reach out or escalate. Likewise, it wouldn’t be a problem if they needed to turn to their support networks after helping me. The important point is, I can choose to share with one or more of them individually without the rest knowing what’s going on for me.

The downside is that my network lacks social richness. Each of my friendships is strong and mutually supportive but there’s little scope for my friends to share the responsibility of being there for me, or help and support each other. Each friendship has its ups and downs, its great times and difficult times, but there’s no opportunity to develop and grow together as a group.

Do What Works For You

If it works for you, there’s no right or wrong way to do this. Neither network type is inherently better than the other; nor are they mutually exclusive. As Sarah found, it can help to have people outside of your insular groups, whilst groups offer the potential for shared support that’s hard to achieve if you only have separate spokesfriend connections.

Bear in mind that these things can shift and change. Over time, you may lose people from your support network, and gain others. The kind of network you have may also change. Many years ago, my main source of support was a close group of mutual friends I first met at university. Over the years, I fell out of meaningful contact with most of them. I felt adrift and alone for a long time, but I gradually built a new network of friends I care about and trust to be there for me. It works well for me, although I’m open to the possibility of further change in the future.

Over to You

In this article I’ve described two types of supportive networks, which I call spokesfriends and insular groups. I’ve looked at some of the differences between them and how they work in practice.

What kind of support network do you have? Does it fall into one of my two types? Perhaps, like Fran and Sarah, you have one or more groups of mutual friends, plus people who aren’t part of those groups. Maybe you’ve a different kind of network I’ve not covered here. How does it work for you? Do you run into problems at all? If so, how do you resolve them?

I’d love to hear from you.


Photo by Seth Doyle on Unsplash.


Wednesday 10 November 2021

Supportive Disengagement: How to Be There for Your Friend When They Need Space

I’ve written in the past about some of the roles I play in the mutually supportive friendship I share with Fran. It’s a topic we describe in detail in our book. I’ve written less about how friendships sometimes move through distinct phases. In this post, I want to discuss one such phase, which I call supportive disengagement.

What do I mean by that? Essentially, it means stepping back from the usual give-and-take dynamic you share with your friend, but being there if and when you’re invited in. It means providing encouragement and support when asked but otherwise getting out of your friend’s way so they can navigate whatever’s happening in their lives the best way they can.

I’ve written this from the perspective of the supportive friend, but it’s equally relevant if you’re the person needing space. Like any other phase of a friendship, supportive disengagement works best if you’re both aware of what’s happening.

What Supportive Disengagement Isn’t

It’s natural for friendships to ebb and flow. Sometimes you’re closer and more actively engaged; at other times, things get in the way, you connect less regularly or in different ways. Sometimes friends break up altogether. For someone like me whose sense of wellbeing is closely related to the state of their relationships, any lessening in a friendship — real or perceived — can be hard to handle. It’s taken time and a lot of inner work to learn how to respect a friend’s need for space without responding as though I’ve been rejected or abandoned.

Disagreements between even very close friends are not uncommon. Fran and I describe several in our book, and I’ve had plenty of disagreements with other friends. Issues are best dealt with at the time rather than ignoring them or putting them off until later. Supportive disengagement is not a substitute for working problems through with your friend. On the other hand, if a friendship has broken down altogether, there’s wisdom in accepting the reality of the situation. Fran has taught me it’s possible for a connection to end, and where necessary to be mourned, without resentment or bitterness. I’ve found this a healthy way to process endings. It’s helped me more than once to hold space for someone to re-enter my life if they want to, without expecting or needing that to happen. There is grace in this kind of acceptance, but it’s not supportive disengagement.

Supportive disengagement is for situations when your friendship is taking a break rather than broken, when disengagement is less than total, and — crucially — where the lines of communication remain open.

When Is the Right Time?

So, when is supportive disengagement appropriate? In short, it’s any time where the usual level of contact, support, or help is no longer possible, needed, or wanted, but neither of you wants the friendship itself to end.

For me and Fran, that’s included times when Fran has been travelling, most notably her three month trip around Europe in 2013. This severely limited how often we were in touch, the nature of our connection, and the support we could provide each other. We describe the challenges we faced and how we handled them in part three of High Tide, Low Tide. With other friends, it’s happened under a variety of circumstances. Perhaps they’ve been unwell; had other commitments which required their focus, time, and energy; or needed space to consider what they want from our connection. Whatever the reason, it’s been okay.

You might know or be able to guess why your friend needs space, but if they don’t offer an explanation don’t push for one. Your friend has a right to expect their need for space to be respected without having to explain or justify it to you.

Ground Rules and Expectations

It helps if you can talk things through in advance. One friend told me there might be times when she’d need space, and we discussed how we’d handle things if and when that happened. Fran and I spent a considerable amount of time discussing how we’d handle her travelling around Europe when we knew we’d struggle to stay in touch.

Be honest about what each of you needs and expects. The aim is to make things as easy as possible in what may be difficult circumstances. Reassure each other that you still care and that this is a stage in your journey as friends, not the end. Here are a few suggestions based on my experience with various friends.

  • Agree how often you’ll check in, for example, once a day, or once a week.
  • Decide how you’ll stay in touch, for example by phone, chat, or email. Is it okay for you to instigate contact, or will you wait for your friend to contact you?
  • Discuss what support might be useful, and anything that’s unlikely to help.

You may want to discuss how long the period of disengagement might last. Does your friend need space for a few days, a few weeks, or longer? How will you know when it’s over? Bear in mind that your friend might not know, or may be unable to give timescales.

What Does It Look Like?

Your role during a period of supportive disengagement can be summed up as follows:

  • Stay out of your friend’s way.
  • Don’t make things harder for them.
  • Let your friend lead.
  • Enable them to move forward, but don’t try to direct their path.
  • Do what you can, but don’t offer more than you’re asked.
  • Hold space when they need it. Give space when they need it.
  • Keep the connection open.
  • Be the friend they need you to be.

What this means in practice will depend on the nature of your friendship and what, if anything, you arranged in advance. If you agreed to check in once a week, don’t message or phone in between. If you agreed not to pester for updates, don’t pester for updates. If your friend asks for help or support, provide it without fuss and don’t push for more engagement than necessary.

It’s harder without ground rules because you may have little idea why things have changed, what’s being asked of you, or how long it will last. Nevertheless, respect your friend’s need for space and accept things are going to be different for a while.

What Does It Feel Like?

Even if you understand your friend’s reasons, it’s natural to feel some degree of hurt or loss. This is especially true if you were previously in touch a lot, as I tend to be with my close friends. It may seem as though you’re being ignored or cast aside, but in my experience, that’s not what’s going on. You’re being asked to be a friend under circumstances many would struggle to accommodate.

If you’re used to your friend being there for you, it can feel scary to lose their support. Remind yourself that it’s not because they’ve stopped caring. They need all their time, energy, and focus for themselves at this time. This is something I learned with Fran. It’s captured in our motto “Care but Don’t Crowd. Share but Don’t Pollute.”

“Care but don’t crowd” reminds me to be there for Fran when she needs me, but not to nag her to tell me how she is doing, or pester her for attention. She deserves and needs her own space. “Share but don’t pollute” is no less important. We are friends and I value her insight and support [...] but it is important not to share simply for the sake of it, or where doing so would drain her of energy she needs to keep herself well.

Ultimately, it’s unhealthy to rely on only one person or relationship for support, so use the time to expand your network. I’ve written about this previously in a post titled Team Marty (Because No One Can Be Everything for Everyone). Above all, focus on what you can gain from this experience.

It’s a Gift!

One of my all-time favourite short stories, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Leaf by Niggle, ends with the words, “It’s a gift!” Although it may not feel like it, supportive disengagement can be both a gift and a blessing.

They say you only appreciate something when it’s gone, but supportive disengagement offers the opportunity to appreciate your friendship without having to lose it first. It can also serve as an antidote to codependency, which is a situation where two people become dependent on each other to an unhealthy degree. It’s a particular risk if one person tends to provide support and care for the other. Spending time apart helps you see what’s been going on, and if necessary reset things when you reconnect.

Your friend has trusted you to deal with the changes to the connection you share and handle your needs while they attend to theirs. Take the opportunity to focus on your other friendships and relationships, to learn about yourself, and to explore your need for connection.

How to Re-engage

It’s one thing to successfully navigate a period of supportive disengagement, but what about when it comes to an end? There’s no guarantee things will be the same as they used to be. You may pick up again with calls and meetings, but you’ve lived through this period apart. You may feel closer for the experience, or it may seem there’s ground to make up. Whatever the circumstances, approach things gently, rather than leaping in and expecting things to be exactly as they were before.

Fran’s Europe trip is a good example. She returned physically and mentally exhausted, but couldn’t rest because she had to immediately start looking for a new place to live. It was an extremely traumatic time for us both but in a way that helped us to re-engage. There was no time to ponder if we were okay because we were thrown back into things straight away.

We knew in advance when Fran would get back from her trip but what if there’s no specific date you can point to on the calendar? How do you know when to start reconnecting again? Take your lead from your friend. If they start picking up with you again, go with it. Take the call. Agree to a meet-up. Talk about whatever your friend wants to talk about, and go from there. If it feels like things are returning to normal, that’s probably what your friend intends, but don’t take that for granted or assume their need for space is over. If in doubt, ask.

It’s reasonable to ask what happened while you were apart and share how things were for you, but accept that your friend is under no obligation to meet your need for understanding. Invite them to share but respect the fact that they may not want to talk about it yet, or at all.

It can feel as though you’re starting again from scratch, but that needn’t be a problem. Approach it as a new chapter in your friendship. Enjoy exploring what works for you now, built on all you’ve shared in the past. As one friend said as we reconnected, “I will always treasure the memories we shared. And so will you.” We’ve gone on to build many more.

I’ll close with something I wrote in my journal during a period of supportive disengagement. I’d been struggling to handle the changes in our friendship, which felt very much like being pushed away, but realised I didn’t have to look at it that way.

I can choose to celebrate the positives in all this and let go of all the rest. I can be the person who hears what my friend wants and needs, and works with her to enable things without fuss or complaint. I can be here while she’s going through what she’s going through. THAT is what I am being offered. THAT is the friend she needs me to be.

In that moment I understood that accepting a friend’s need for disengagement and supporting them through it is one of the most profoundly caring acts we will ever perform.

Over to You

In this article, I’ve explored supportive disengagement, which is where a friend or loved one needs to disconnect from you for a time but doesn’t want the relationship itself to end.

Have you found yourself in that situation? Have you ever needed to pull back from someone or ask them to give you space? How successful was it for you? How did it feel? Did you re-engage afterwards? We’d love to hear from you.


Photo by Ansgar Scheffold on Unsplash.