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Men's Health

Step inside Britain’s first men-only mental health centre

The Eaton Foundation, a charity in Burton upon Trent, has opened Britain’s first all-male mental health centre.

Established in the reclaimed offices of a disbanded architecture company, the new health and well-being centre is the brainchild of Alex Eaton, a young man whose father tragically took his own life several years ago.

Eaton’s sudden loss forced him to re-evaluate the effectiveness of existing National Health services, and the 30-year old found that despite these services being indispensable for many, there were still those who slipped through the cracks.

And so, the Eaton Foundation came to be. Working out of a small office, Eaton and his team rethought their entire approach to mental health care, began to refine the system and turned the charity into the success it is today.

Eatonheader_3443578bClients and volunteers sit in the common room at The Eaton Foundation  Photo: Facebook

“When we first started,” explains Eaton, “we provided therapies and services but, after a while, I noticed that it wasn’t really working – because there were people with more than one problem walking through the door. So I created what I think is the UK’s first holistic humanistic package, and it’s tailored for each of our guys because, obviously, everybody’s different.”

Eaton, whose T-shirt bears the frank and honest hashtag ‘#MenNeedToTalkToo’, shares his concerns that troubled men are not being treated in the best possible way. These individuals are bounced around the national healthcare system, says Eaton, made to speak to different people about their seemingly separate problems.

However, Eaton stresses, all mental health problems are linked, and these constant stressful referrals only serve to exacerbate the individual’s existing conditions.

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So, by recognising that no problem is mutually exclusive, Eaton and his team formulated their own plan for mental health care – a one-stop shop where all of your problems can be dealt with simultaneously by a familiar group of specialists and, most importantly, over a relaxing cup of tea.

“If you send these guys for counselling, you can obviously talk about one problem at a time, but nothing will be sorted overall. There’s a practical side to mental health as well, and we need to address those core problems. Here we try to tackle big problems but, at the same time, nothing is too small. We often just help guys find jobs,” says Eaton. “We’ll sit and write CVs with them, put them on training courses and just make them generally more employable.”

Eatonmeeting_3443591bThe new meeting room at The Eaton Foundation  Photo: Facebook

Rob Gilholy, one of the Eaton Foundation’s original clients, has now become a volunteer for the charity. He tells me how peer support has helped him detox and get his life back on track.

“I was clean for about four and a half years, but then I got a job at the brewery, had one drink and fell off the wagon,” says the 47-year old. “And I was drinking in parks and on the streets and at the time Alex did a drop-in centre where you could go and get something to eat – and that’s when I got involved with the Eaton Foundation. They helped me with my debts, my mental health, and with my addiction too.

“I’ll have been clean six months on Monday, and it’s pretty good helping other people out,” he says. “You can’t get away with blue murder with me, because I’ve tried every trick in the book! But it’s brilliant working with the clients, and it’s been very good for me as well. There’s no pressure – that’s what’s nice about it. And, at the time, it just felt nice to get a phone call asking ‘how’re you doing?’”

When Rob first contacted the Eaton Foundation, the charity was operating out of one small office, and was forced to rent out spare rooms in the local library to conduct one-to-one counselling sessions and consultations. So, when funding from local businesses increased, a new and larger centre was the next logical step.

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“This building had been derelict for 15 years,” shares Eaton, “and whilst I think the council recognised what we wanted to do, I think they equally just didn’t want such a good space to remain empty. There were damaged walls, ripped-up floor tiles and all the paint was flaking. It was very worn out. But we had the place industrially cleaned, we bartered and negotiated with local suppliers and managed to do all this in just over a month – and for under £10,000.”

The centre itself is sleek, modern and homely. The stained glass and old architectural features have been restored to their original quality and rugs, furniture (sourced from the British Heart Foundation) and a new lick of paint give the offices an atmosphere that merges the professional and the comfortable. Men can relax and socialise here, but they can also confront and tackle some of their biggest problems.

Eatonsofa_3443586bA consultation room at The Eaton Foundation  Photo: Facebook

Several consultation rooms, a group training area and a smaller relaxation room all help to ensure that every at risk man who comes through the door can be helped back onto his feet. A kitchen churns out those all-important cups of tea, and a larger common room area with a television and newspapers offers a chance to chat and relax. “It’s to reduce social isolation more than anything, really,” explains Eaton.

“We currently have a caseload of around 45 men,” continues Eaton, “and we respond to referrals within a day. We receive these referrals from statutory services, the third sector and from family or friends. We have 10 volunteers and three paid members of staff who work for the Foundation.”

As well as Rob Gilholy, another of those volunteers is Fiona Mills, a support worker who has suffered mental health problems of her own.

“I have an autistic spectrum disorder; I have Asperger’s and also, since the age of 11, I have been diagnosed with depression three times – so I’ve had a lot of mental health issues. After my last relapse I was looking for voluntary work and I saw that Alex was looking for volunteers, so I applied.

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“That was over a year ago now – I’ll be part of the furniture soon!

“I work with the clients, and specialise in debt, benefit and housing issues,” shares Mills. “I’ve been trained by the Citizens Advice Bureau so I know how to best help people with these problems. It’s really nice to work as part of a team, it’s nice not to get bullied and instead to be appreciated.

“I think it works really well being just a male thing. Men seem to find the Eaton Foundation just that, a foundation – really solid ground that they can start building from again. Because if you Google women’s charities, the results go on forever, do that for men’s – and not so much. Take domestic abuse for example, there are over ten times more refuges available to women than to men.

Eatonfiona_3443583bFiona Mills, a volunteer at The Eaton Foundation  Photo: Facebook

“Working here has shown me that men do need the help,” continues the 23-year old, “and men and boys need to know that it’s OK to have these problems. There are these stereotypes, that if a man is in nursing or childcare people think he’s gay, and it’s the same with having feelings.

“They feel like they’ve got to be the breadwinner, the man of the house, that it has to be them who wears the trousers. Even in the media, most storylines and events in the soaps and films are triggered by powerful men. We need to firstly beat these stereotypes down, and then look at how they have affected how we deal with male mental health.”

Mills’ co-worker, Ellie Reay, agrees that the Foundation’s male exclusivity is what makes it so effective.

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“As this is a purely androcentric organisation,” says Reay, 19, “I think that helps us break down the stereotypes. And in the way that no day is the same, every client is different as well, and that’s enough variation without the thought of introducing women!”

“And, because we’re a brewery town, there’s a markedly bigger problem with addiction. Men just find that it is part of the culture and feel that they have to drink, and drink a lot. It’s mostly the older men who suffer from alcoholism, but the ages of our clients range from teenagers to men in their sixties – there are different problems for different ages and we have to learn to cope with that.”

This constant learning curve and refinement of procedure has shaped the Eaton Foundation into the charity it is today. Their constant experimentation and alternative approaches have attracted the attention of fundraisers, and, in turn, this has facilitated the construction of their new mental health and well-being centre.

Eatonneil_3443612bNeil Eaton, Alex’s father and the man whose suicide was the catalyst for creating The Eaton Foundation  Photo: Facebook

“We’d love to replicate this in every city or every town if we could,” reveals Eaton. “And we’ve managed to open one centre so, hopefully, if we can draw attention to these issues and secure further funding, there’ll be scope for more.”

The Eaton Foundation can only become more successful. To date, the team has won five awards and the Foundation has just been nominated for Charity of the Year at the Impact on the Community Awards 2015. An invitation to join the Male Mental Health Research Team at the University of Central London shows just how pioneering this charity and their new mental health centre are and Eaton, with his wife, is currently campaigning for a new male division of the British Psychological Society alongside researcher Dr. John Barry.

Hoping to at least double the number of clients they help, the Foundation is a fitting legacy for Alex’s father, and the holistic approach of the charity is personified by Eaton’s own bold and spirited enterprise. “It’s all about just breaking down these stereotypes,” concludes Eaton, “we make our clients feel comfortable, draw attention to these wider gender issues, and just try to help men who want to turn their lives around.”

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