Nine years have passed since TV host Matt Johnson contemplated ending his own life and five since he became an ambassador for the mental health charity Mind.
Yet despite channelling his efforts into de-stigmatising mental illness for others, the former This Morning presenter has only just spoken to a therapist for the first time.
“I probably didn’t go to see someone because I was scared of digging too deep and it getting messy,” admits Matt, 36, who first suffered depression in his 20s.
“It’s such a shame it took me so long. I can’t recommend it enough – I’d 100% tell people to go and talk to an actual professional. Just do it.”
After his close call with suicide while on a Christmas break in Spain in 2009 (“I was on a balcony’s edge with my foot up”), Matt suffered several bouts of depression yet avoided therapy.
“It didn’t fit with the way I wanted to go,” he says. “Maybe in my subconscious I didn’t feel comfortable with going to talk to somebody. I wanted to deal with it in a different, more organic way.”
Instead, Matt spent years trying alternative therapies to improve his mental wellbeing. “For me, my life was my therapy. I’ve been to Thailand and chanted with monks, when I was in LA I tried yoga and meditating. I’ve done the whole ‘I want to punish myself’ thing too, so ran three marathons.
“I thought talking to people I met was enough. Everything has been a forward step in self-discovery, but sitting down and having a talk with a professional didn’t happen until a few months ago.”
“I have grown up in a world where therapy is for broken people and that perception is wrong”
It wasn’t a drop in mood that finally persuaded Matt it would be good to talk. “I have grown up in a world where therapy is for broken people and that perception is wrong,” he says.
“We think it means accepting there is a problem, which isn’t necessarily the case. When I finally went, it was not as somebody who wanted to fix anything – I’m in a really great place – but because I’ve got a busy year coming up.
“I’m very good at creating ideas and then not following them through, so that was the reason I signed up. Then, in a way, everything fell into place – all the stuff about my past all made sense.”
Matt has been surprised to discover even his close friends aren’t as comfortable talking about mental health. “The stigma attached is terrible,” he says. “Recently I shouted across the gym to a friend to say I was leaving as I had a therapy appointment. He jumped across the room to shush me up because he was so worried I was going to embarrass myself. He couldn’t believe the fact it didn’t bother me to say it out loud.
“He’s intelligent and has seen so much of the work I’ve done to raise awareness of mental health, but was still saying ‘shhh, let’s not talk about therapy out loud’. There’s still work to be done.”
This is one of the reasons Matt joined forces with life coach Ben Bidwell. They met on a plane to Ibiza and discovered a mutual interest in mental health. “I told him about my work for Mind and he told me about his work as The Naked Professor and we had a ‘eureka!’ moment of making a podcast together.”
In the weekly show, the pair interview household names such as Davina McCall and Busted singer Matt Willis about their own experiences of mental illness. “We want to start conversations about mental health and see where they go,” Matt says. “When I first spoke publicly about my own experiences five years ago – to my ‘TV parents’ Eamonn and Ruth – it was a huge, huge shock as I was one of the very tiny number of people talking about the issue.
“Now you see a lot more public figures opening up but I’m concerned it’s not a true reflection of what is happening in rural and working-class areas in the UK.
“The stats just haven’t improved. Suicide is still the biggest killer of young men, so while discussions may be happening in magazines, on TV and in the cities, I’m not sure the message is getting thought in rural parts of Wales, the valleys where I come from, for example. My story might have been very different if I had stayed in Caerphilly.”
Matt also believes drastic action is required when it comes to the state of our mental health services. “What’s the point of TV shows helping us recognise the signs of a problem just so someone watching can say ‘that’s me’, then wait up to 10 weeks to see someone?
“We need to make therapy affordable and accessible because the people who are struggling with purpose and finance are the ones who really need help.
“There was a moment for me in 2016 where I didn’t have any work lined up and had debts. I’d also had a break-up. I was in bad shape and suffering from chronic sleep deprivation so took myself to the doctor as I didn’t want to end up back where I was in 2009.
“It was quite a desperate moment and my GP gave me seven minutes to discuss what was wrong, diagnose me, give me tablets and tell me to expect a letter within seven days. I then had to call a number on that letter to sort a counselling appointment six weeks later. I never took the tablets and never phoned them back – and no one ever followed me up.
“It’s shocking. The entire mental health sector is massively underfunded and needs to be straightened out.”
The Naked Professors podcast can be downloaded on iTunes, Spotify and Acast.
Mind has a confidential support line on 0300 123 3393 (9am to 6pm, Monday to Friday).
If you need to speak to someone, Samaritans are available 24/7 by calling 116 123 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org