Earlier this month an extraordinary couple from Burton upon Trent opened a unique and ground breaking new male-only health and wellbeing centre to support some of the most vulnerable men in their community.
The Eaton Foundation, which encompasses mental health, addiction, homelessness and life skills support under one roof, is the first and only such centre in the UK specifically targeted at men.
The centre has been met with warm and widespread local and national media coverage, but what the reports mentioned only in passing, was the complex and tragic father-son relationship that was its inspiration.
Alex and Jessica Eaton were driven to establish the centre after the death of Alex’s father two years ago, who despite suffering from alcoholism and complex mental health problems, had repeatedly fallen through the cracks of local health and social care.
'He would drink just to function'
Alex spoke with insideMAN shortly before the centre opened about the conflicted relationship he had with a father who he loved deeply despite his destructive behaviour and the bleak circumstances that led to his death aged just 52.
“He’d suffered from mental health problems, substance abuse, homelessness, everything really. But because my dad was drunk quite a lot of the time, they would say it was his own choice and they couldn’t help him.”
“He was vulnerable, what I mean by that, he was an alcoholic, he was chemically dependent on his alcohol.
“On pay day, he would get up, go to the shop and he would buy a big litre bottle of 20-20 and he would down that and he would buy two of those gold labels too, just to function in the morning.”
When trying to get his father help, Alex tried the local rehab centre, local crisis team, local mental health team, none of whom could help, or had six month waiting lists.
'I thought, I'll never be like you'
“When nothing else worked and my dad was coming round causing lots of trouble, we had to go to the police.”
The police then put him in a mental health unit.
Despite his father’s destructive behaviour Alex loved his father and invited him to come and stay with him and his girlfriend -- Alex would ask him not to drink in the house, but his father would hide the alcohol and drink anyway. His behaviour eventually took a heavy toll on Alex’s relationship with his girlfriend.
Alex says they had a deeply complex and conflicted bond – in the end his father became a role model for what he never wanted to become. Alex doesn’t drink or smoke, let alone do drugs.
“One thing my dad said to me, ‘you’re just like me’, and I thought, I’ll never be like you.”
Dearth of male-focused services
He believes a major reason why his father was unable to get the helped he needed, was because he was a man and that the lack of male-focused services was compounded by the pressures men feel under to be stoic and cope alone.
“We’ve always seen there’s a gap in service provision for men, it seems like in this day and age, women and children are favoured over men.”
“To be a man, you’re always told you have to be strong, kind of be emotionless.”
“Basically, even women think men have to be the ones who go out to work, to be strong, basically to be the structure of the family, that’s the expectation that’s been put on us as men.”
“I think that absolutely when men do suffer with mental health problems, or do suffer with addiction, they feel it’s better to try and hide it.”
'He would have been proud'
“I think men are scared of admitting that there is something wrong, because they don’t want to appear weak, in case they get laughed at or mocked.”
Alex’s father over-dosed at a homeless hostel after drinking heavily and taking a combination of prescription medication and illegal drugs.
A week after his father’s death, Alex was sitting down with his wife discussing what provision there was for men in his father’s position in their area, he says “there was no centre in our area for men, basically, so we just thought, why don’t we open our own organisation and it went from there”.
“We provide a holistic support package. With the complex mental health problems we come across, you can’t afford to be one-dimensional.”
“You can give someone counselling for years and years, but if you have housing problems, with bailiffs coming through the door, it will never go away, you need a whole package to get round those issues.”
“When we first opened the charity, we did feel no-one took us seriously, but since we’ve been gaining momentum, we feel we’ve opened a lot of people’s eyes locally and even nationally, and it’s even got to the stage where people want one of these mental health centres in their own area, and this one is not even open yet. We’ve had a lot of local support”
“At the end of the day, I know my dad would have been really proud of what we’re doing and that we’re helping other people like him.”
“Our target this year was to see 100 individual men, but are now looking to help even more.”
By Dan Bell
Image: The Eaton Foundation