Hugs, Sweat And Tears... My Midlife Crisis During Mental Health Awareness Week

16/05/2017 09:18 BST | Updated 16/05/2017 09:18 BST
Heads Together

Me: Hi Reuben, you'll never guess who I just hugged before the London Marathon? Dad x

Reuben (my son): Who?

Me: Prince Harry!

Reuben: Whatever!

I was just about to run 26.2 miles for team Heads Together, and our modern day Henry V, Prince Harry, gave an Agincourt style speech, followed by a 'band of brothers' embrace. It was inspiring. It was passionate. But you can always rely on your teenage son to bring you back down to earth. I don't expect him to get it at his age, but in years to come I hope he'll understand the priceless impact a hug can give, particularly now, as we reflect on Mental Health Awareness week.

I turned 43 a few weeks ago. It isn't cool to admit it, but I'm beginning to appreciate the small things - like a cup of tea and a hug. I'm easily pleased - ask Mrs Fletcher. Up until my 40th birthday I tried to manage my street-cred by projecting a trendy image. But my use of the word 'trendy' shows just how much of a losing battle that was.

Add dying my beard and running marathons to my list of latest interests and I can't help wondering if I'm having a mid-life crisis. At least there's no leather jacket or bright red Ferrari. The only red thing I've had recently came from chaffing during the London Marathon.

Ok. I'm happy to accept that I'm having a lame midlife crisis which consists of marathons, cuppas, hair dye and hugs. I'm not alone in turning to running and dyeing (with an 'e'), and everyone likes a cuppa, but a hug can be awkward, inappropriate and difficult to instigate - especially with a Royal. I'm not talking about the pervy type. You know, the kind of embrace with a work colleague that lingers a bit longer than is necessary, with hands drifting lower than they should - not that I'm suggesting Harry is a groper. Far from it. His embrace was a bear hug that says we're in this together, I'm thinking of you, we stand shoulder to shoulder, call at anytime. The kind of hug that gives you strength when confronted with the challenge we all face from time to time: you and whose army?

That's what the London Marathon was saying to me on the start line - you and whose army? Like many other lycra clad dads at the start line, I felt vulnerable, underprepared and anxious. But after my royal hug I could say my army was Harry and the rest of the Heads Together team. They were backing me, and with them behind me I knew I'd succeed, chaffing or no chaffing.

I've run two London Marathons before but this one felt more poignant, particularly as I ran past the scene of the Westminster terror attacks. If we dealt with terrible events like that alone many of us would buckle. A simple hug has never felt more relevant.

My son Reuben - the one who brought me back down to earth - has OCD which I described in my last blog and Reuben and I talked about with The Telegraph's Bryony Gordon in her Mad World Podcast . Faced with the situation alone our family would have sunk. But we've embraced and been embraced, literally and figuratively, by friends and family - which has kept us afloat.

Faced with a challenge we pull together. Alone is weak, together is strong. But when it comes to mental health, tragically all too often it's different.

We attempt to deal with the demons alone, so it feels like there's no hope. That's a key factor in suicide being the biggest killer of men under 45. I know many men who find it hard to talk. 'I don't know what to say. It's awkward'. So what's the answer? A hug is a good start because it's a simple, warm expression of solidarity. It's the opposite to a stiff upper lip. It's open and inclusive. A hug immediately breaks down obstacles and leads to a few words - 'good to see you'. And a few words lead to a conversation. Many men I know aren't tactile, but they secretly appreciate affection. So this is a call to arms to their friends and family. Your man, your dad, your brother, your son - he may not say it but he probably needs a hug.

That's how I felt minutes before the start of the London Marathon. I was running for my son. A year of watching him struggle with OCD was getting the better of me. I was tearful, and incredibly nervous. I certainly didn't feel ready for a challenge. The only thing that could save me was a hug, and Harry was in my path. He was just about to talk to someone else but I guess he saw that 'man needs a hug' look in my eyes. What followed was a group hug with Radio 1 DJs Adele Roberts and Nick Bright. It felt good. It felt emotional. It was a hugs, sweat and tears race.

The London Marathon is like a giant hug with almost a million supporters and runners saying 'we're in this together'. Whether it's that type of giant hug or a two person bear hug, hugging is so much more than it seems.

And mine with Prince Harry, 'The Royal Hugger in Chief', symbolised what Heads Together are doing - bringing people together to talk about how they feel. And I felt fine. I realise now, days after Mental Health Awareness Week, that my huggy midlife crisis isn't that bad after all.

Sean Fletcher is a journalist and broadcast personality on BBC Countryfile and ITV's Good Morning Britain. He ran the London Marathon for Heads Together and YoungMinds. Heads Together is a charity spearheaded by The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry with the aim of ending the stigma around mental health. YoungMinds is the UK's leading charity committed to improving the emotional wellbeing and mental health of children and young people.