10 questions with Men's Health Week trustee John Berry

Today is the start of Men's Health Week and is a great opportunity to think about how we are tracking with our mental health.  We talk to John Berry, a kiwi who spent a decade working on deals around Europe.  He explains how he was ground down by long hours and stress. John, who is now a trustee of the Men's Health Trust, believes his story is common to many New Zealand men. He explains what went wrong for him and how he turned things around. 

1.    You were a very successful lawyer and investment banker in the UK working long hours.  What were the first signs you noticed that concerned you about your health?

I’d been feeling well below par for a while but was shocked when a colleague bluntly said to me “life is not a rehearsal”.  It really made me think.  How had I got to a point where I was stressed to the max, struggling to be social and full of self-doubt and anxiety?  I was on the edge of a dark place yet to the outside world I was still functioning fine and doing a great job.  

2.    Had anyone spoken to you about your health prior to this?

Some years earlier I was working crazy hours and felt wrecked so I visited a doctor.  He asked me if I felt like my employer was “taking the p*ss” and told me to think about a new job.  He warned me your body can work above its capacity (in terms of stress and sleep deprivation) for a short time, but not permanently.

3.    What was your reaction to the concerns?

I actually changed job – though I conveniently ignored his message that I needed to look after myself better.  My work was rewarding and exciting – I ended up running a small team across London, Frankfurt and New York and (mostly) loved it.  I thrived on working hard – but I also felt exhausted and my thinking could be chaotic.  I convinced myself this was “normal”, as many guys do in this situation. My mental and physical health continued to decline, not in big steps but it just slipped a little each day.  Then on one particularly stressful day my head started spinning and I blacked out in the office.  It was scary.

Just to be clear, I blame no one but myself.  I didn’t look after myself, I didn’t exercise enough, I didn’t shut off from the office. I also burnt too much mental energy sweating the small stuff.  I was (and still am) very passionate about my work – that is who I am.  I just needed way more balance.    

4.    What steps did you take to improve your health?

I saw a doctor who wasn’t interested and simply told me to get a good night’s sleep.  But I knew it was way more serious than that.  I needed to make life changes – and once you accept that, things become easier.  

Ange and I moved back to NZ and changed the pace of life.  I found a doctor who better understood what had been going on.  Now I exercise more, sleep better and have more time for my family. I have co-founded and run a boutique fund business which is very challenging and engaging work.  Change in life can be scary – but also hugely rewarding.   

5.    How often do you visit a doctor now?

I go at least once a year.  Even if I am feeling fine I still get checked over.  Your doctor is part of your health “coaching team” – a good doctor really can help you stay healthy.

6.    Why do you think men are so resistant to going to see a doctor?

Research shows NZ men won’t visit a doctor as often as NZ women – there’s a big gap.  It is probably a combination of male apathy about health, embarrassment and the assumption men are “bullet proof”.  Most guys take more care with the maintenance and fuelling of their car than they do with their body. 

7.    You are a trustee of the Men's Health Trust in New Zealand, http://menshealthnz.org.nz/ what is their role?

We are about education, awareness and encouraging men to make positive and proactive lifestyle choices.  In short we want to help change the way NZ men think about their health.  Our programs include workplace men’s health workshops, scholarships for young men who choose a career in health and funding prostate cancer research.  We are a small charity but have an opportunity to make a big impact.

8.    What's the most concerning stat relating to men's health in New Zealand?

There are plenty of concerning men’s health stats in NZ.  For me the most shocking stats are around risk taking behaviour by men which is linked to mental health.  New Zealand has one of the highest rates of male youth suicide in the 34 country OECD.  Over every age bracket more of our men than women smoke daily or drink to hazardous levels.  As men we are getting the message that we need to look after our mental health – but it takes courage to talk about it or to seek out help.  We still need to improve this.

9.    What role can partners and mates play in men's health?

Through my most difficult times my wife was totally supportive, understanding and encouraging.  She prompted me to seek help and to make changes.  Partners and friends play a critical role in helping us stop and question how well we are looking after ourselves.

10. If you could give other men some advice around their health, what would your three key points be?

Firstly visit a doctor each year even if you’re not ill – taking a preventative step like this doesn’t come naturally to guys but can make a huge difference.  If there is an issue you want early detection – and if there are no issue you want your doctor to help you stay in great shape.  Secondly focus on relationships – make sure you have a mate or partner who you feel comfortable talking with about sensitive physical and mental health issues.   Finally, remember life is not a rehearsal - find your passion in life and run with it.  So much of good health is simply about attitude.

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