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Policeman made 'terrifying' decision to quit force to help desperate men

By Remy Greasley

A man from the Wirral quit his job in the police after 17 years as an officer when he discovered a shocking lack of men's mental health services in the borough.

Phil Roberts, 52, left Merseyside Police in 2020 to create a unique service for men's mental health in the region. JourneyMEN, the charity he set up with co-founder Leon Choi, has now worked with over 500 men in the Wirral who are struggling with their mental health by providing services such as counselling.

Towards the end of his career as a police officer, Phil worked as part of a joint operation between the council and police force that would visit and help families struggling, financially, physically, or even legally. During that time he witnessed many people, mainly men, ending up in court from problems that essentially boiled down to their mental health and other related factors, such as loneliness or financial desperation.

READ MORE: Man once 'headed for jail' saved by girlfriend and the advice of a wise pub owner

One man, he said, was even issued a fixed penalty notice after he dialed 999 over 1,000 in a single year. Why? Because he was suffering from extreme loneliness, said Phil.

Phil told the ECHO : "He didn't think there was anything wrong with phoning 999. But we were going round having to issue FPN's to people who were suffering but abusing the 999 service because that's there for emergencies only.

"But all that did was add extra pressure onto these people and there families who now had to worry about a fine, and if they couldn't pay it they'd go to court. It just added pressure.

"When I was dealing with the families. I was talking to them and asking them what the real root issue was, why were they calling us, and they'd open up and a lot of the time it was to do with mental health."

As part of his job Phil would signpost services that could help these struggling families. This involved pointing out relevant mental health services also, but Phil discovered an imbalance in the mental health services available in the region.

"It basically came down to a battle of the sexes- you had a divide between men and women. For women, they had a support network at the time, a wonderful place called Tomorrow's Women, and they do a lot of stuff - probation, counselling, social events - for women on the Wirral, but there was no equivalent for men.

"So when I was dealing with these people who were struggling, I hoped to God that I was dealing with a woman because I had somewhere to send them for help. But the poor fellas had nothing at all, so when I was going around and men were telling me their stories, the only thing I had in my tool box was to ask them to go to their doctor or GP- and near enough all of them said 'I have but all he's given me is a load of tablets'.

"At the time we had a lot of suicides on the Wirral, and out of them a lot of them were men as well. So I thought I need to look at this properly."

Phil then scouted around for people and organisations to help, and despite the lacking services, he found nothing but support for the idea he had- to create a dedicated service for men's mental health in the Wirral.

He said: "When I was getting advice from a man at the Wirral chamber of commerce and he told me 'Phil you have got to do this because if this would've been here 12 months ago I wouldn't have had a breakdown. If you do this you're going to save a lot of heartache on the Wirral'."

Phil, along with Leon Choi, began JourneyMEN but he was still working with 'one foot in the police' and he soon discovered the size of the task at hand required all hands on deck. He said: "everything was pushing me in that direction but it was terrifying going from a guaranteed wage to self-employment, especially at my age- I was 50 at the time, I still had a mortgage."

Phil at the opening ceremony of JourneyMEN, which he called the 'worst opening ceremony ever' thanks to lockdown restrictions thwarting plans (JourneyMEN)

Yet, despite lockdown arriving just days before their set opening ceremony on 8 April - which he called the 'worst opening ceremony of all time' thanks to the restrictions - their business was handed to them immediately as the country's mental health took a dive thanks to covid.

JourneyMEN has now worked with just over 500 people in the Wirral, and provides a range of counselling services, particularly for men, though it's services extend beyond that.

When asked if he thought that the shameful ideas of 'men don't talk' and 'boys don't cry' have affected men coming to JourneyMEN for vital help, Phil replied: "As men we always get told to 'man up' and all that, but they say that men don't talk, but once they've got your trust and understanding, and once you've scratched below the surface they open up, and what I've found with fellas is that everything comes out and they're very honest. It's then a question of how do we help them deal with that.

"The old ethos that men don't talk? Oh my God, they do, they really do, and they should. It's just getting to that point where you've got to open them up, for everyone's sake."

Phil was also careful to stress that despite the name, JourneyMEN seeks to help people no matter what gender, or sexuality. You can find them on their website here, or on Twitter here.

Anyone interested in giving some of their time as part of JourneyMEN's volunteer group, helping people all across the Wirral, is encouraged to get in touch. He said that with a bigger team they could help twice as many people.

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