This Christmas, rather than spending precious time with our families and taking some much-needed time off, we will be attempting to row 3000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean, battling sleep deprivation, 40-foot waves and trying to keep down bags of uninspiring rehydrated food. We will be rowing non-stop in two-hour shifts, 24 hours a day for 40-60 days. We will be totally self-sufficient, producing our own water and electricity, whilst carrying only our essentials on our seven-metre long boat.
If all goes to plan, we will arrive towards the end of January.
We are taking on this challenge in aid of the James Wentworth-Stanley Memorial Fund (JWSMF), a charity which was formed 10 years ago following the tragic death of our captain Harry's brother James. James was a confident, fun-loving student at Newcastle University who suddenly, and for reasons unknown to anyone at the time, took his own life aged just 21. Ever since James' death his parents, Clare and Nick, have worked tirelessly with JWSMF to raise awareness of suicide and mental health, particularly in young men, and to prevent the horror that they went through happening to anyone else.
Of course, this is unquestionably a positive development but beneath the surface there remains a very deep sense of sadness and frustration. Suicide is the biggest killer of young men in this country - attributable to thousands of deaths each year. 78% of suicides were recorded as male in 2013, and this figure is increasing every year.
It is difficult therefore not to see this shocking statistic as preventable, however the recent increase in awareness is yet to secure enough affirmative action for those in need.
In the case of James, neither his family nor his close friends were aware that behind his jolly exterior was a man suffering from anxiety and having suicidal thoughts. Too proud to broach the subject with his loved ones, he went to an NHS walk-in centre to open up about his feelings. From the NHS walk-in centre, he was then referred to the A&E Department at the local hospital as a low priority patient - the same level of urgency as a toothache. He went to the hospital but walked out after sitting in the waiting room for over an hour. Less than a week later James had killed himself.
The hectic environment of A&E is clearly not the right place for someone experiencing emotional distress and in a fragile state of mind. Furthermore, someone who has intimated that they are having suicidal thoughts should not be treated as a low priority.
James' story is not a one-off, but similar to that of thousands who take their own lives every year; there simply isn't a place for them to go to in their time of need.
A new initiative has been conceived by the charity in order to fill this void within mental health services in the UK. Named "James' Place", the charity is opening the first in a series of non-clinical crisis centres to provide much needed support for people who, unable to think clearly or rationally at a moment of real or perceived crisis in their lives, feel that suicide is their only means of escape.
Reading through the other blogs on this platform, we consistently find the view that the pressure to confirm to the male gender stereotype is a principal factor in the development of mental health disorders. But within this idea, the most dangerous part of this stoical stereotype, as happened in James' case, is the belief that by opening up about his feelings, a young man risks damaging the role of 'masculinity' that society expects of him.
This is where we can really begin to understand the significance of James' Place, not only for the footprint it will leave on mental health services but, crucially, for what it embodies.
Through Row For James, we aim to fund the establishment and initial operation of the first James' Place which is due to open in Liverpool next year. So far, our Row For James campaign, which has been running since November 2015, has raised almost £220,000 of our targeted £300,000.
Further to our fundraising efforts, we ultimately hope to help create a culture in which even a quiet conversation may prevent a friend or family member from considering suicide - a route which might otherwise seem the only option.
Counter-intuitively, by rolling these centres out across the UK and incentivising such a conversation, we hope that fewer and fewer of these centres will be needed in the future.
That conversation was always there for James, but the male gender stereotype prevented him from having it. We shouldn't have to be reactive to these sorts of tragedies. We should be proactive in knowing that those around us may be in need, right now.
Tellingly, when it came to choosing a team that could endure the numerous challenges of rowing the Atlantic, the main criteria was neither athleticism nor rowing ability. The main criteria was a tight-knit group of four friends who, faced with weeks of isolation on such a small boat, would be able to communicate openly and effectively with each other to get through the toughest of times. Just as in everyday life, talking freely will be a must.
HuffPost UK is running a month-long focus around men to highlight the pressures they face around identity and to raise awareness of the epidemic of suicide. To address some of the issues at hand, Building Modern Men presents a snapshot of life for men, the difficulty in expressing emotion, the challenges of speaking out, as well as kick starting conversations around male body image, LGBT identity, male friendship and mental health.
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