Staying active for better mental health

Clarke Carlisle

Posted on: 29 September 2016

Around 80 people in Devon commit suicide every year with men in their 40s and 50s being by far the largest ‘at risk’ group. Mental wellbeing is a complex issue which affects so many people of all ages in our community, yet it is still a subject that very few people talk about.

Ex professional footballer Clarke Carlisle recently visited Exeter to raise awareness of the effects of mental health issues, particularly on men and boys. After speaking about his personal journey which took him from the dizzy heights of professional football through to drink, anti-depressants and several attempted suicides, he is now a leading advocate for people helping themselves and those in the community around them. He has some simple advice that doesn’t need a strategy, funding or a huge support network.

“What you need to know is a person’s norm,” Clarke said.

“What you need to know is your norm. Only when you know your norm can you identify variations in the norm. When you know that this guy is normally immaculately dressed and starts turning up for three, four, five days in a row dishevelled – that’s when you can make an intervention – that’s when you can say ‘how are you? You seem a bit tired today’.

“And you can do that in your workplace. It just takes a level of observation and human interaction and we can do that for each other. When we do that, that’s when we can really make a difference in our homes and in our communities.”

But if you are suffering with anxiety or depression what can you do to help yourself?

Everyone will deal with what is happening to them differently, but medical professionals are united in one overwhelmingly simple way to help you manage your feelings. Exercise! It’s often free, you can do as little or as much as you want and although it won’t cure you, it will help you to feel better about yourself and about what you are feeling.

Exeter based Josh Jones is a volunteer for the Men’s Network in Exeter. He has shared his story in the hope that people in general and men in particular will see that there are many steps that they can take to manage stress, anxiety or depression and bring more control to their lives. Get Active Exeter, the campaign to help busy adults in the city get more active is looking at the crucial role that physical activity can have on better mental wellbeing and raising awareness of the role that exercise can play in managing negative feelings.

Josh Jones

Josh Jones

“I don’t really think I have anything to hide any more,” said Josh.  “I don’t see mental health as a disease or ailment. It’s now part of who I am. The best thing you can do if you’re experiencing mental health problems is to voice what is happening to you. It’ll make you feel that you’re not isolated and you’re not battling it alone.”

The Men’s Network in Exeter is a social group where men meet in a very informal way for a chat, coffee and sometimes to do what Josh describes as a ‘men things’ which range from growing vegetables, going for a walk and art classes through to engineering their own racing car.

Josh has been volunteering with the network for a number of years, yet he’s still only young. He is a successful professional and yet he has experienced such debilitating mental illness that he was hospitalised with a nervous breakdown in his late teens whilst working as an appreciate mechanic.

“The most terrifying thing was that I didn’t understand what was happening to me.”

“I’d wake up every morning on edge and it would stay with me throughout the day. It was very tiring being on edge all the time, yet I found it difficult to sleep.”

Some of Josh’s symptoms may sound familiar. He found it nerve wracking to be in a big groups of people. He was losing weight. He was feeling like a nobody. He was exhausted from constantly feeling anxious. “Depression makes you feel like a worse person than you are,” he said.

These symptoms are typical of anyone suffering from mental health problems, but for Josh there was one thing that helped him cope, and which many doctors and counsellors now recommend as part of a successful treatment programme: “Exercise and being active has seen me through a tough patch in my life,” Josh said.

Josh looked for ways to try and understand what was happening to him and searched for different ways that he could manage his depression and anxiety. “A counsellor told me that I could reduce my anxiety levels through exercise. That advice has really been my saviour.”

Everyone experiences stress, anxiety or depression in a different way. Josh’s way to cope was by using sheer determination to get up and go to work every morning, but he admits that at times he felt like he had very little control over it.

“It sounds strange, but I tried a horse riding lesson so that I could do something outdoors. This turned into lessons once a week.”

He enjoyed horse riding so much that it then developed into horse trials, show jumping and dressage. For seven years horses became Josh’s passion and enabled him to spend much of his time outdoors, busy tending to the horse that he had borrowed. As the horse has got older, Josh is finding his pleasure in alternative forms of exercise including going to the gym, for walks and for wild swims.

“I find swimming in the sea ridiculously relaxing and refreshing. Swimming, walking, running – they’re the best things in life and they don’t cost a thing. If I can just get my heart rate up going for a walk or swimming in the sea, I feel better.”

Since depression and anxiety changed Josh’s life, he has had the desire to help other people in a similar situation to himself.

“I definitely feel as if I have got more out of volunteering for the men’s network than I have put in. It has been a brilliant experience. I really wanted to volunteer for a mental health charity purely because it relates to something I have been through,” he said.

“I’m now 100% glad that it happened to me because it’s given me a real insight into the fact that our mental health isn’t set in stone. It can happen to anyone – the most active, the most positive, the most outgoing person can be turned into someone who finds it difficult to get out of bed in the morning.”

Josh’s top tips for better mental health

  • Get involved in something, whether that be exercise, volunteering or an interest
  • If you’re wondering if you can do it, the answer is that you can
  • Instead of thinking ‘I don’t think I’m going to be able to do this’, think ‘I can do this’.
  • Just see what happens. If it doesn’t work out, at least you’ve tried. Just trying something will enrich your life and make you a happier person.

And the future? “I still have to manage my nervous system, my anxiety and my stress levels carefully because I know if I don’t I’ll go back to that place. Now, rather than seeing it as something that is wrong with me, it’s part of my personality that drives me to do the good things, the things that I am proud of.”

The Men’s Network meet socially every week at a café on Exeter quay, where men can just chat and enjoy a coffee, or try one of the many events or activities that they run that really do help people get to grips with what they are going through. It’s safe, confidential, informal and doesn’t cost a penny.

Watch Josh’s story.

Active Devon, Mind in Exeter & East Devon and Dorset Mind have teamed up to offer a stunning weekend walk along the Jurassic Coast from Wool to Durdle Door in Dorset. Tents, food and transport will be provided.

This is a chance to make friends, enjoy the world renowned scenery right here on our doorstep, raise money for Mind in Exeter and East Devon, build up your walking strength through preparatory social walks and find out more about how Mind supports people within the local community.

The Walk for Wellbeing takes place from 19th – 21st May 2017. Get your application pack by e-mailing

Men’s Network

To find out more about the Men’s Network contact  Richard Dennison on 07970 736677

Football club

For people experiencing homelessness and for those who have a range of health issues to get involved with physical activities and be part of a small, supportive community.  Meet every Tuesday, different locations including Amber, St Petrock’s and Exeter football club. Leaders are Steve Mclean and Dave Newport. Get involved via Twitter.

Opportunity Club

RISE Devon, meet Wednesdays and Fridays, to have a positive impact on mental health and drug and alcohol recovery. Contact Nik Sutherland.

Posted in: Health and Wellbeing