When Luke Ambler took a phone call in April of last year, he was already a man embroiled in the fight against mental health. Quietly, around his career as a professional rugby league player at Halifax, he had started up business working with young people suffering from low self-esteem and other wellbeing issues, inspired by his own struggles as a child. Yet, when he was informed in the early morning that his brother-in-law Andy Roberts had been found dead by his own hand, his whole world shifted abruptly on its axis.
“It just left complete destruction and devastation in its wake,” he notes with a candid appraisal of the days that followed the bombshell. “I thought he was such a gentleman. Andy was in trouble a lot in his younger years; he was in and out of youth offence institutions and prison. But then he completely changed his life around. I couldn’t honestly ever believe that this lad had been in trouble.” He pauses and moves his palms from the table top to his arms, holding himself cautiously. There’s something slightly out of focus that he’s drawn to as he searches for words. “He’d got a great job, had a beautiful daughter, and just seemed to be progressing with his life. And then the rug was pulled out.”
Luke meets with Mantality at his office in Halifax. It’s a windy, wintery day, slate-grey and foreboding in his hometown, with drizzle in the air and a biting chill that sweeps through the valleys and hills of Calderdale. Inside, the air is warmer, though the space is somewhat barren; he is in the process of changing locations within the building, to help accommodate the growing network of people who are helping with #AndysManClub, the mental wellbeing campaign confronting the stigma of male suicide discussion, a campaign that went viral and exceeded all expectations.
“At first, I thought it might just be a little coffee club up in Ovenden,” he admits, “and it’s just become much, much more than that. I wanted to set something up in memory of Andy, and it’s just ignited. We’ve got five separate clubs across the country already; we’re doing sessions in schools and we’re heading into prisons soon too, which means a lot given Andy’s background. You see how much it is needed. We’ve started an unbelievable movement.”
In the Beginning
Like all movements however, there is a genesis. And behind all journeys are an impetus that spurs the wanderer into action. For Luke, this moment came when, before the age of ten, his recently-divorced mother was involved in a car crash that would deeply affect his relationship with her throughout his formative teenage and adult years, and beyond into the current day. The young Luke had been living with his father since his parents’ separation; but the incident and its lingering effects on both him and his mother signalled the beginning of a nineteen-year crusade in mental health that predates the international explosion of #AndysManClub.
“It was a very emotional and tricky time,” he acknowledges in his soft-spoken Yorkshire burr when asked of his life around the divorce and crash. “It left me with an eating disorder, though I wouldn’t have noticed at the time. I got bullied a lot; I really didn’t like school and it was a tough place to be. And then the crash left my mum with life-threatening injuries; brain damage, smashed legs and constant blackouts. Had someone not broken the sunroof to get her out, she would have suffocated.”
A few years later, his mum survived another potentially deadly incident, when a neighbour rescued her from her own burning house after another blackout. For Luke, coming to terms with his mother’s increased reliance on other people was a difficult learning curve. “She was always the life and soul of the party, and to see that ripped out of her was sobering. She had severe anxiety and started developing drop attacks; she’d fall, break her teeth, cheekbone, jaw, nose, rip the skin off her arm. You name it, she’s had it. They were sporadic too; she could have six in a day or go weeks without one. As soon as I was old enough to drive, I was having to go out to get her medication and tablets, because she was housebound by this. It was hard, but in a sense, this events sparked my interest in mental wellbeing, in getting to grips with these illnesses.”
Does his mother still suffer from effects now? “Definitely. What’s so interesting about these hidden mental struggles is that if you saw my mum today, you’d think she was fine, because she looks normal, she looks healthy. But underneath, she’s not; she suffers from depression, anxiety, these blackouts. The doctors initially thought it was epilepsy but eventually ascribed it to non-epileptic attack disorder. Today, I always worry that my next phone call with her could be the last one. It only takes for her to fall wrong and bang her head a certain way.” A deep breath. “When Andy died, I was already doing a lot in mental health, I’d already been involved in the fight and it really upset me because I knew he knew he could have come and talked to me about his struggles.”
After the Ordeal
Luke had to juggle his personal complications with his burgeoning career as a rugby league player. Initially starting out with Salford, he transferred to Leeds amid their imperial phase. But he was unable to break his way into regular first-team action, and after spells on loan at London and York, he departed for good to his hometown club Halifax. Yet, he struggled off-field with the burdens he found himself carrying.
“I was in the mentality of “why me” in a way,” he notes. “An unfortunate series of events were unfolding. Bad things happen to us all. My missus had a massive asthma attack when six months pregnant that nearly killed her; I’d had to leave a Super League career for one at a part-time team; I separated from my partner and started going out drinking. I broke my foot one night, and it was a wake-up call.” Is he, in hindsight, tempted to say that he almost revelled in the difficulty and misery? “Yeah, in a way. I was just not a particularly nice person to be around.”
His personal redemption began with a strong showing in the 2013 World Cup, where he represented Ireland, an opportunity he hopes to repeat at the tail-end of the approaching season in Australia and New Zealand. “It put the fire back in my belly. I felt like I’d plateaued but the world cup showed me that I still could go on and achieve more. It helped me develop a counter-mentality to the negative one I’d had; the mentality of “what’s next”, the idea of taking your darker days and channelling them into a more productive outcome. “Why me” is getting drawn into the negative; “what’s next” is rising up with the positive.”
Luke’s life was back on track, and over the following few years, he both helped Halifax to a place in the Qualifiers of the Super 8s and saw his own business helping charities flourish quietly on the side. Then came that fateful call in April that changed everything. “When Andy died, that was the single worst thing that’s ever happened to me. It was out of my control in the sense that I couldn’t take the pain away. I couldn’t take away the pain from my six-year-old boy who just lost his favourite uncle, I couldn’t take the pain away from my missus who just lost her baby brother, I couldn’t take the pain away from my mother-in-law who had just lost her son.”
Outside of the immediate family circle, it fell to him to pick up the immediate pieces in the aftermath, a difficult task that left him stirred to take his mental health campaigning to another level. “I had to tell the mother of his child that he’d died by suicide, and go see her. I had to go pick his car up from where they found it. I was grieving, but I was also able to function. I had to do all these things and I thought to myself that it was bullshit, that no-one should have to do all these things, no-one should have to go through this alone.”
For Absent Friends
And so was born #AndysManClub. Three months after his brother-in-law’s passing, Luke held the first meeting, and to raise awareness, posted an image himself on social media making an OK-hand-gesture, captioned #itsokaytotalk. The response was far greater than he anticipated. “It was genuinely unexpected. I put a picture of the gesture up, and my missus said that it wouldn’t work. And then suddenly, it goes viral. It was in The LAD Bible, and on the Halifax website, and then it’s suddenly become a beast. It’s gone from a kitten to a lion in the blink of an eye.”
In part for Luke, being able to reach beyond the rugby league community meant something extra to him. “It is a wonderful sport, with wonderful people but sometimes… there seems to be too much confusion. Take Bradford, and Sheffield, and York over the past six months, and Halifax too, with the whole Shay debacle and the publicised ten-percent paycuts. This is a sport that struggles with its reputation; the fact that #AndysManClub is able to reach out beyond league not only helps its reputation as a sport confronting mental wellbeing issues but also shows that this is a message the resonates.”
In the six months since it began, #AndysManClub has set up five permanent groups, including one in Wales, with more to come. The online content is accessed regularly from all corners of the globe, from Australia, to the United States, to Italy and Japan. When Luke was invited to give a talk at a university in Madrid, he met a stranger two days later in Valencia who had followed the movement from its beginning. “Some guy called Vincent, from Serbia, came and met me. He’d lived in Spain for thirteen years, suffered depression and urges, and could only communicate in broken English. And he’d seen the posts online and it had inspired him to open up to his family back home across the continent about his struggles. That’s when it really hit home for me. This is a barrier-shattering movement that’s transcended its parameters. It’s gone truly global in a sense.”
Is there a reason that he feels it’s been a near-unprecedented success for a British mental health campaign? “Because it’s stigma that you need to confront. When people think of mental health, they often jump to words like “crazy” or “sectioned”. This tackling the struggles that, as a man, you’re led to believe you shouldn’t acknowledge or show; these are the struggles that should be hidden behind the masks of masculinity. I think that’s why it’s so special; it’s a group of men who are more willing to open to each other because for some, speaking about these issues around women may impede their masculinity.”
Then is the logical next step to tackle gender identities and roles? “Definitely. If you take it back to cavemen days, men went out hunting, whilst women stayed home and nurtured children. We’ve evolved since then, as have gender roles and concepts; but emotionally, we haven’t. There’s still an innate masculinity in our emotions, a brusqueness even. Men are playing catch-up on an emotional level, and that includes being able to accept that it is not a blow to masculinity to speak up about your issues.”
Is it stronger then, for men to acknowledge and accept these issues than shun them? He nods. “For certain. If anything, it’s weaker to hide it away, to not speak out. It’s braver to let the pressure valve loose. That’s why the club is such an eye-opener; I’ve never been anywhere like this where I feel that I’m not alone. The world is full of compassion if you’re willing to let them hear it. If you sit and watch the news, you’ll think the world is a nasty place; it’s not as nasty as you think though. People are willing to listen.”
As we wrap up, Luke acknowledges that this has been the most revealing, intimate discussion he’s had in the public eye concerning #AndysManClub. Did he keep a lot of the details secret because he didn’t want to distract from the cause? “It’s quite difficult in a sense. I was always very careful when #AndysManClub started to not mention my business away from Halifax, because for some, they’ll see me as taking a charitable cause to further my own career. There’ll be people out there who might be annoyed, even bitter about this, because they’ve spent years campaigning thanklessly. But I didn’t start this with the intention to be publicly championed. This has never been about self-gratification and it has never been about money, since every penny we get goes into the movement. I started this to help people, to make a difference, not to be hailed as an opportunist or saviour.”
He pauses as he stands and again, that faraway look drifts across his expression, seeing something not exactly there. When he sharpens his gaze, he is focused, determined, resilient. “We were included in the national suicide prevention plan by the government the other week,” he adds quietly after a moment. “And that was rewarding in a sense. This isn’t a gimmick; we’re here for the long haul. I had a man who came to me contemplating suicide four months ago, and now he runs one of the clubs. The secret to living is giving, not possession or materialism.” He stops again for a moment, and a small smile breaks out. “It may sound corny or cliché but this isn’t just life; this is the resurrection. And it’s a beautiful thing to be able to help make that happen.”
If you or someone you know are feeling suicidal or in crisis you can call Samaritans any time of the day or night, on 116 123. This number is free to call from any phone.