Everton in the Community’s award-winning mental health programmes have provided life-changing and life-saving support to people across Merseyside since 2007. The Club and its official charity want to increase access to care through The People’s Place, a proposed open-door facility on the Goodison Campus which will deliver a range of mental health programmes and enable signposting to other services.
In the lead-up to World Mental Health Day today, evertonfc.com has published a series of videos and articles to improve awareness of the issue and illustrate the unconditional support available from Everton in the Community to anybody suffering with mental health.
Today focuses on Evertonian Jake Mills, founder and CEO of Liverpool-based mental health charity Chasing The Stigma, which has teamed up with Everton on The People's Place project.
Watch a video with Jake below or by clicking here, and read the story on how his own battles with mental health fuelled his determination to help others.
If you need mental health support or to find out more about The People's Place project, click here.
Donate to support Everton in the Community's life-changing work here.
Jake Mills stands on Spellow Lane and scans a rolling patch of grass. He pulls his jacket taut, shielding himself from an October chill.
Mills is reaching into his mind’s eye to picture The People’s Place, the mental health facility Everton Football Club and Everton in the Community intend to develop on this unprepossessing patch of land.
He peers through slits in the iron fencing wrapped around the site within a toe punt of Goodison Park and can feel and express the importance of this project.
Mills talks with clarity and authority about how it will save lives. Listening to him speak with such passion and reason, it is very difficult to imagine this 29-year-old, who is such enriching company, as anything other than the confident, ferociously-driven mental health champion stood here today.
“When I first spoke publicly, a number of people came to me and the realisation of how many others were struggling gave me a purpose back and a fire in my belly,” says Mills.
“Seeing an injustice going on in the world enabled me to drive forward and make something of my own life.”
Jake Mills has exploded the “bubble of numbness” which once surrounded him. He has dropped the guard which, rather than protecting him, was acting to push this outwardly assured and successful individual further into himself.
“I did not know I could be fixed and it was something that could be treated,” he says.
Mills knew nothing about depression –
nor that he was suffering from the illness in its starkest form – and was blind to the help which existed for those suffering from poor mental health.
In 2013, he drove his car to a place he considered a safe haven, where he was discovered by girlfriend Rachael attempting to take his own life.
Here’s the thing: Mills made his living from making people laugh. He was very good at his job, too. “The next big thing,” as one BBC critic had it, he shared bills with stand-up luminaries Reginald D. Hunter, Josh Widdicombe and Rob Beckett and in 2010 was shortlisted for the prestigious Leicester Mercury award.
“It allowed me to escape from real life,” says Mills. “What wasn’t so nice, was when you stepped off stage and were back to reality.
“It is quite a difficult, isolating and lonely job.
“People think comedians are going on stage and making everybody laugh and it is the best job in the world. But most of your time is spent on your own travelling.
“When I started comedy somebody said to me, ‘You don’t get paid for performing, you get paid for waiting around’.”
Mills cannot say for certain when his mental health started to deteriorate. How could he when he “did not know what it was”?
Mental illness digs it pernicious claws into sufferers and exerts a mighty hold. It is dogged and spiteful. it controls thoughts and encourages damaging beliefs.
Mills was gripped by the illness when he was 23 and within 12 months had decided his death would liberate his partner and family from a heavy burden.
“I had gone from ‘safe’ adulthood at university to trying to forge a career as a comedian and having to make money,” he says.
“All my responsibilities weighed heavily on me. I longed to be a dad and for a future with my girlfriend but was convinced I did not deserve those things.
“It was a gradual thing because I did not know what it was. I did not try to get help… I did not think I could be helped.”
Five years later, Mills is at the vanguard of efforts to “normalise and humanise” the topic of mental illness. In 2016 he founded national mental health charity Chasing The Stigma (CTS), which is partnering with Everton on The People’s Place project.
He has a tattoo on his forearm of a lyric from a song by his favourite artist, Bruce Springsteen.
‘It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive'.
“Music helped me through some of the hardest times,” says Mills. “For a brief stage I felt every lyric Bruce Springsteen had written was for me – part of me still wants to believe that.
“Before and during my depression, and certainly before my suicide attempt, I did not know anything about depression, I did not talk about mental health, good or bad.
“That is what we are trying to address. We want to educate people, to enable them to have those conversations before things reach crisis point.”
Suicide is the biggest single killer of men under the age of 45 in the UK.
Equally, more people than ever are seeking help for mental health problems, a fact indicative of a society with a broader understanding of the subject, agrees Mills.
He is, however, armed with statistics which point to a cavernous space in the provision of care. And he is explicit about the substantial role Everton’s People’s Place – which will deliver mental health programmes and provide signposting to other services – could have in closing the gap.
“It is really good people are becoming more aware of mental health problems and seeking help,” says Mills.
“But there is a lot needs to be done, almost three quarters of the people who died by suicide in the past year, and the year before, were either not known to mental health services or had not been seen for more than a year.
“We know there are different reasons for that and the NHS is under a lot of pressure.
“That is why projects like The People’s Place are so vital: the grassroots organisations, the places where you don’t necessarily have a waiting list, where you can go in and be around people and receive help.
“Preventive, early-intervention support is essential and can stop people from allowing their problems to escalate and become crises.”
Mills’s lowest point, the day he concluded suicide was his best bet, transpired to be the catalyst for his recovery.
He was free from a tangle of lies, concocted to maintain the façade of happiness and impression of a man comfortable with his place in the world.
“After my suicide attempt, I could not hide anymore,” says Mills.
“I had to face the reality, not only of what I was trying to escape but the impact on my family.
“They were supportive, they spoke to me without judging me and did not use it against me, completely contrary to all the things I thought would happen.
“They were there for me. Looking back, of course they were there for me. But I never saw it that way when I was ill. That acceptance from my family was the biggest turning point in my life.
“It pushed me to say, ‘Things aren’t good and I am going to get better’.”
EitC is in its 12th
year of delivering its award-winning mental health focussed programmes and services. The Club’s Chief Executive Denise Barrett-Baxendale views The People’s Place as an opportunity to “enhance and evolve our current provision… to encourage people to talk more freely”.
Mills discovered his voice – more pertinently, the power of his voice – as he embarked on his recovery.
He spared no detail when sharing his story and is using his experience as a vehicle to advocate greater understanding of mental health problems.
His charity aims to remove a stigma which remains attached to the subject. Replace the word stigma with ignorance, he says, and you appreciate the folly of blithely and errantly labelling an illness which, allowed to prowl unchecked, can have the bleakest of consequences.
“Everybody has mental health,” says Mills. He explains the bubble; the claustrophobia inside, the crisp air and world of opportunity outside.
“Before I started speaking it was like being in a bubble,” he says. “It was like I was living in a normal world but I could not associate with anything, or feel anything.
“I was inside this bubble of numbness.
“After I spoke out, it was like that bubble had burst. Suddenly I could breathe and feel air in my lungs.
“I could talk and be myself, I could be emotional and have the feelings and thoughts I’d been begging for, for a long time. It was like a release… to say, ‘Okay, I am not hiding anymore, I am going to get better’.”
As his national media profile grew, so Mills found himself awash with requests for his counsel.
A germ of an idea formed in his mind and within two years Chasing The Stigma was launched.
An Evertonian and long-standing Paddock Season Ticket holder, his charity’s alliance with the Club seems preordained.
“I tried to make something of what I had gone through,” says Mills.
“I realised when I was speaking publicly a huge responsibility came with that. People were asking me for help, so I wanted to formalise that.
“We created Chasing The Stigma, and through that we created Hub of Hope [in July 2017], a national mental health database which makes it as easy as possible to find help.
“I did not plan on any of this, it is an accidental journey. But we are going with it and we are at a stage where we can offer life-saving support to people across the country.
“We are very lucky to be able to partner with Everton on The People’s Place project.
“What better way to tackle that stigma around mental health than to use heroes, idols, a football club that means so much to so many people?
“It is hard to put into words the power of the Club saying, ‘This is fine, you can talk about it, we will be able to get you support, we will be able to help you through it.”
Mills wrote the Ambassadors of Hope training programme, designed to educate on mental health and which is being rolled out to all employees at Everton FC.
He delivered the first session, addressing a group which included Manager Marco Silva, Professor Barrett-Baxendale, Everton captain Phil Jagielka, Marcel Brands, the Club’s Director of Football, and EitC Chief Executive Richard Kenyon.
The motivation for this element of Mills’s charity is underpinned by memories of the wall of lies he constructed at the height of his illness. He wants people to recognise if a family member, friend or colleague is suffering with, or susceptible to, poor mental health.
“I was creating an illusion I was fine and happy, putting on a mask to hide away my inner turmoil from the people who wanted to help me,” he says.
“I felt alone despite having a lot of people around me. The more my girlfriend or parents said, ‘We know something is wrong, how can we help you?’ – it pushed me further away, because I did not feel I could be helped.
“I wanted to protect them as much as myself.
“The more they would ask, the guiltier I would feel. And the more people worried about me, the more of a burden I felt I was to them and their lives.
“I was acting differently. All the signs were there but not necessarily obvious.
“That is why the Ambassadors of Hope training is so important, we are trying to aim it at people who need to be vigilant, encourage them to have conversations and look for symptoms.
“I was stopping going out and cutting myself off from friendships. Making excuses to not commit to plans or see people.
“I was erratic and emotional, particularly with paranoia and anger.
“My family knew something was wrong but did not for one minute appreciate the extent of it – and that was because I did not let them.”
Mental illness does not discriminate. It does not pick its victims because of their age or race, their gender or individual circumstances.
“The People’s Place is not just about Evertonians,” says Mills. “It is about the whole community. We want to get the message out to the community around Goodison: We all have mental health and should be talking about it.
“Everton is a club doing things. They are not talking about it, they are actually doing it. It is not gesturing, it is not box-ticking, it is not lip service, it is actually, ‘Let’s create something which will make a difference to the community.
“If we are going to save lives and reduce the numbers of suicides, then having somewhere people can go to get help is absolutely vital.
“The People’s Place is beyond exciting and I cannot wait to see it.
“It is going to be positive for mental wellbeing and a beacon of hope for so many people in this community.”
Mills, once upon a time, saw no way out. Now, though, the reality is clear. He was born to run, he harbours no guilt about the joy he derives from life. Rachael is his wife and mother of Jake’s three-year-old son Teddy. Mills is performing his comedy routines again.
“I don’t do the clubs now, I mainly play corporate gigs,” he says. “My career stopped when I was unwell, these shows allow me to be more in control, I am not away from my family.”
He laughs, a belly laugh.
“And there is no bigger ego boost than having a room of complete strangers laughing with you.”
'It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive’
“The lyrics are quite powerful,” says Mills, explaining the inscription on his body. “I think we forget to acknowledge the present and should not feel guilty about being happy to be here and being ourselves.
“The tattoo is a reminder to be unashamedly glad of the journey I’ve been through and that I’m still here to help people’.”
He wants to shatter the “myth that people don’t want to talk about mental health”.
“I think people do,” he says. “They just don’t know how.”
It is worth absorbing the words Mills chooses to convey his overarching message.
You are never alone.
Mental illness came for Jake Mills. But he is fighting back with a vengeance – and determined to have the last laugh.