A stressful job and a male-dominated culture of macho behaviour left him on the verge of a complete breakdown.
But Paul found strength in his role as a father and now works with men to champion issues around mental health, suicide and taking back control.
I recently interviewed Paul [pictured above] for Inside Fatherhood, my forthcoming book to be published by BRF in 2018.
Here’s a preview of his moving story:
“I tried to process why he hadn’t said anything to me. I couldn’t cope with the grief but, when I sent to see the welfare officer, they told me to ‘pull myself together’. I couldn’t admit I had a mental health problem to my employer. I didn’t even know that I might have one. I knew the stigma attached to it. In that kind of working culture, men just didn’t talk about their feelings.”
Do you have an experience of fatherhood to share? Contact me if you would be interviewed for the book.
All fathers want to see their children open their presents on Christmas morning.
But thousands of dads across the UK will miss that moment this year.
A friend of mine, Richard, is one.
Having split from his partner earlier this year, he will spend Christmas day alone “drinking too much red wine and watching movies on Sky” before collecting his young children from their mother to spend New Year’s Eve with them at his place.
He talks about “just wanting to just get through it this year” but he’s not alone. From the divorced to the bereaved via fathers working away from home, thousands of men will miss that Christmas-presents morning this year.
According to a recent online survey by Samaritans, some 45 per cent of men felt sad or depressed at Christmas time; 37% of men admitted to feeling lonely, citing relationship and financial difficulties as their main sources of their anxiety.
And it’s not just older men. A separate survey, carried out for the BBC by market research company Comres, found that 18 to 24-year-olds are nearly as likely (30%) to feel lonely as those over 65 (31%).
The Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt recently described the plight of the “chronically lonely” as a “national shame.”
“We have to move beyond the idea of men don’t talk, boys don’t cry,” says Joe Ferns, Executive Director of Policy, Research & Development at Samaritans. The organisation received 244,000 calls during the Christmas period last year and volunteers will man 201 UK branches over the festive period.
“We’re supposed to be modern men but, when we don’t cope, not coping becomes the biggest problem for us.”
“At Christmas,” he adds. “It’s even harder to hide from the reality of our feelings.”
So how exactly can men get through it this year?
Peter Saddington, a Relate counsellor based in the Midlands, encourages men to reach out and take small, practical steps.
“Separated fathers could plan a Skype call for Christmas Day morning, then plan a second Christmas to make memories for your kids,” he advises.
Relate offers telephone and online counselling over Christmas, according to where you live, and increasingly advises individuals on relationship matters – not just couples trying to stay together.
“Men are just as emotional and upset about a family breakdown but, when they seek help, we often respond really well to counselling,” he adds.
“It helps them put aside the sadness aside and move forward.”
As Christmas approaches this week, mental health professionals will be acutely aware that recent research shows male suicide rates are spiralling.
The Men’s Health Forum, a charity working to improve men’s health services, cite Department of Health figures indicating suicide is the single most common cause of death in men under 35. Of the 5,981 suicides in the UK in 2012, 4,590 cases were male according to the Office for National Statistics.
The Forum this month launched its Man MOT service, enabling men to contact an NHS GP via live text chat or email (it varies according to the day of the week).
“Men tend to put all their eggs in two baskets: work and wife.”
“Then, when a major life change comes, they haven’t nurtured the support networks that women traditional turn to,” explains Dr Luke Sullivan, a clinical psychologist involved with the project.
Dr. Sullivan is also working with the not-for-profit organisation Men’s Minds Matter to create a National Federation of Men’s Institutes to reduce isolation in men and provide a supportive environment to help men cope with challenging life events.
“Ultimately, you can close the door, hide away and think about what you’ve lost, or you can find a way to make it a bit easier, looking to the future and setting some simple goals,” he adds.
“It’s important to recognise that things will be different next year.”
I’m one of the lucky ones.
My divorce was finalised this year on the basis of a shared-parenting arrangement.
I had support during this process and I’ll pick up my daughters on Christmas Day morning this year to watch them open their presents before I cook the lunch.
I’ve invited Richard to join us.
After all, it is supposed to the season of goodwill to all men.
I’m sitting in a Chester café with the actor Ian Puleston-Davies, better known as Owen in Coronation Street.
We’re supposed to be chatting over coffee and bacon sandwiches but Ian can’t settle – his Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is playing up.
“I’m sitting here obsessing about whether my ear is clean, about the stains on the table and how close the guy behind me is sitting,” he explains, trying hard to conceal his agitation.
“It took me ages to just sit down at the table as I was afraid it would break my coccyx on the chair.”
Ian is a patron of OCD-UK, the national charity campaigning for support and treatment for sufferers, which marks OCD Awareness Week from today [October 13], an initiative designed to change inaccurate perceptions about OCD.
“Sometimes,” adds Ian, “it’s exhausting just getting through the day.”
According to figures from OCD-UK, there are some 750,000 people in the UK living with OCD, an anxiety-related condition characterised by frequent uncomfortable and obsessional thoughts.
Around 50 per cent of cases fall into the severe category. It can strike from young children to adults, regardless of gender or cultural background.
“OCD is the poor cousin of mental health in that people tend to joke about it and trivialise the suffering of those living with it.”
Ashley Fulwood, Chief Executive of OCD-UK, adds: “But it is a serious illness and it can lead to tragic consequences.”
Ian suffered his first experience of anxiety-indicted OCD behaviour aged just seven years old. He was on the football pitch at his primary school in North Wales when his classmates started to tease him for fiddling with flies while passing the ball.
After that, he was always the last one to be picked for the team.
“I still remember being in my bedroom and consumed with the anxieties I subsequently nicknamed my habits,” he says.
“I felt like an alien. The only clue to what was happening came from reading the problem page in my mother’s copy of Woman’s Own about housewives obsessively washing their hands.”
Ian wasn’t diagnosed with OCD until the age of 35 by a Harley Street therapist and suffered in silence for the intervening years.
“I was crippled by over-sensitivity to everything: contamination, fear of harm to myself, or others,” says Ian. “I was even terrified that if I got up too quickly in the morning, then I’d break my back.”
At his lowest point, he simply couldn’t get out of bed, an image he later created for the opening scene of the ITV drama, Dirty Filthy Love (2004), a story about a man struggling to understand his OCD, co-written by Ian and staring the Welsh actor Michael Sheen.
For Ian, OCD Awareness Week is about encouraging sufferers to reach out for support and treatment.
Men suffering from mental illness are, he sighs, generally less inclined to share the problem with their partners or mates.
“I’m angry at myself for being weak. I’m a husband and a father, the paternal protector, but at times I’m shrivelled in the corner stressing about a stain on the wall.”
“Sometimes I feel OCD has completely emasculated me,” he says.
But a range of treatments are now available – from local community support groups to Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT), as well as the use of (SSRI) medication, an anti-depressant to control serotonin levels and reduce anxiety.
“Sufferers should seek help early as the longer you leave it, the worse it gets,” explains Professor Paul Salkovskis, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Bath.
“There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with OCD sufferers’ brains and the research shows a good proportion of sufferers will not just improve, but may eradicate the condition, with suitable treatment.”
“Like learning a new language,” he adds, “you can actually retrain the brain.”
Back in the café, Ian he has finished his coffee but his sandwich remains half untouched. “We live in anxious times and the anxiety within us as a society is growing,” says Ian. “I’m really concerned about how our children are increasingly susceptible to OCD.”
“But, ultimately, I have to beat OCD and find some peace,” he adds. “After all, I can’t to go to my grave with wet wipes.”