Sam Delany is a writer, author and broadcaster who describes himself as someone who “used to drink way too much and work way too hard” but is “better now and learning to live a calm and happy life”.
He hosts a podcast called The Reset, in which he aims to bring more men to the mental health conversation by talking openly with his predominantly male guests about their struggles with addiction and mental illness, while also sharing his own story.
Part of this backstory was living life at 100 miles an hour working for media brands including ITN, the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, NME and Heat magazine.
He has a deep understanding of how to talk to men about mental health and is even now studying counselling and psychotherapy, too.
We spoke to this fascinating, creative man about his own story and the art of getting others to share theirs.
Is it true to say that you’re passionate about getting people to talk about mental health because of your own experiences?
Yeah – I’m passionate because I didn’t acknowledge the existence of my own mental health until I was about 40. I’m 47 now. I just didn’t allow myself before that to reflect on my experiences or the way I responded emotionally or mentally to anything. But, at the same time, throughout my life I’d suffered from really bad anxiety and low moods.
When I was a magazine journalist, I was always going away for work on seemingly fantastic glamorous trips, and I’d be absolutely miserable, really miserable, not being able to leave the hotel.
But I kept it a secret, I didn’t tell anyone about it. I grew up in a culture where you didn’t take anything seriously and you didn’t take yourself seriously – if you did, it was almost a sign of self-indulgent pretentiousness or something.
What happened at 40 then?
My drinking got really out of hand. My wife was getting really upset because I’d be coming home pissed pretty much every night, or she kept finding bottles of booze. I got to crisis point and that led me to therapy.
I went to the Priory because I needed advice on how to detox. I just wanted someone to give me a way of stopping drinking, I didn’t think anything else. It was only through meeting a great therapist there and her talking me through the recovery process and realising that drinking is just the symptom of a bigger problem.
There were a lot of unaddressed mental and emotional pain incidents through my life, none of which were particularly exceptional or unique, but they can still be traumatic, is what I’ve learnt. You may not have had a big event but lots of small things can build up. And that’s another reason why people don’t open up about depression, anxiety or addiction: they think they’ve got to have something that’s massive to describe trauma, like being the victim of abuse.
I stopped drinking, did therapy and became more reflective about myself and the way I feel and respond to things. You start to realise that there’s a million and one different things that happen to you throughout your life that cause you pain and you bury them because we have grown up in a stiff upper lip culture. So you pretend to be OK. I was really embarrassed at the idea of every being self pitying. I became extremely good at pretending to be OK, living the ‘laddie’ life.
Is that a theme you’ve seen in your podcast – men pretending to be OK – because you’ve interviewed mostly men on The Reset?
Yeah, yeah definitely. The podcast and newsletter were specifically launched for men and particularly men from a laddie background. I grew up on a council estate and went to a comprehensive school and have always been in and around football culture. No one talked about mental health. A lot of the men opening up about mental health, as brilliant as they are, weren’t the sort of blokes from my kind of background – like [[broadcaster and actor] Stephen Fry and [author] Matt Haig, for example.
One of the big issues that companies who are trying to improve employee wellbeing have is getting men to open up. What have you learnt about this?
Sharing your story is always a really good thing to do. So I approach The Reset quite differently – rather than it being about me asking questions in my usual journalist role, it’s more of a conversation than an interview.
And approaching it with more of a conversational, blokey tone and not being afraid to laugh at things that are self-evidently funny. A lot of blokes like me are put off mental health chat because it seems very earnest. It’s all about tone for blokes.
I think companies are scared not to be earnest because they’re talking about stuff that is potentially serious – how would you recommend companies talk to men about mental health?
I would definitely say you don’t want to chuck everyone in the same room. Small groups of men work better than mixed gender. Sharing experience is more powerful than sharing advice with men. And tone of voice is everything. If you’re overly-earnest you will switch men off and make them feel like a victim. Small groups, conversation, humour. All that stuff really helps with blokes.
Do you think men still feel the pressure of being the breadwinner/ provider role?
The truth is, since I’ve been opening up with so many blokes on the podcast, there is this cultural conditioning. When you’ve got kids, you feel a huge amount of pressure to be a good role model, bring the money in, put food on the table… even though the practical reality might be that you and your wife share all responsibilities 50/50. But you still have these old fashioned ideas somehow in your head. Feelings of failure are extremely, extremely common in blokes – that is one of the biggest triggers for people I’ve spoken to on the podcast. The impact that feeling like a failure can have on everything other aspect of your mood and your mental health is immense.
What has been the most helpful thing to you in your journey to wellbeing?
Changing my perspective on what constitutes success or failure, and what makes me worthwhile. That has changed a huge amount for me over the last 7 years.
I used to probably place too much emphasis on things like how busy I was, how much money I was making, how in-demand I was, how high my profile was… All those superficial things that are quite seductive. I made my perspective much smaller and think much more about the day to day and try not to be influenced by outside validation.
Now I have built a little studio in our back garden at home where I work. My wife works at home too and so we usually have lunch together. I pick my kids up from school, I play video games or football with my son. I make sure I do my weekly therapy session, make sure I exercise daily, see my personal trainer a couple of times a week, look after my health, eat properly and read things that nourish me. I just try to look at the every day and elevate the every day into the things that give me real pleasure.
So, cheesy question, but are you happier now than when you were rushing about being hyper productive?
Yes. It took a long time and it didn’t just happen after stopping drinking. But yes, 100%.
Sam’s new book, ‘Sort Your Head Out: Adventures in anxiety, addiction and losing your marbles’ is out in Spring 2023 but can be pre-ordered here https://www.amazon.co.uk/Sort-
You might also be interested in: