Roman Kemp didn’t give it a second thought when he took antidepressants on camera, in Roman Kemp: Our Silent Emergency. Viewers of the the 2021 BBC documentary, however, were surprised and full of praise for the radio presenter and TV personality – which for him was really telling.
“So many of the population take it! To me, it’s the same as if you’re making a documentary about going to the gym, and [people are] like, ‘Oh my God, you drink protein shakes?!’
“It just shows how far behind we are in normalising the subject as a whole,” says the 29-year-old. “It’s not something to be embarrassed about. Why would you ever be embarrassed about something that’s helping you? How and when did [taking antidepressants] became a shameful act?”
The Capital Breakfast presenter – and son of Spandau Ballet and EastEnders star Martin Kemp – has struggled with depression since he was 15, and having lost a close friend to suicide, he knows the importance of being open about psychological difficulties.
It’s why he’s backing a range of new services by Boots, which provide on-demand help to people who need advice and support quickly and conveniently, including talking therapy and cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT). There’s also a mood and symptom checker tool, and access to prescription medicine if needed.
An estimated 1.6 million people are waiting to access mental health support on the NHS – the pandemic, of course, has caused more of a backlog and long waiting times over the last two years – and Boots says they’ve seen a rise in people asking for mental health support in their pharmacies.
“Sometimes you can’t wait six months, you can’t wait three months, you can’t even wait two days – you need it right now,” says Kemp. “I believe when you need to talk, when you’re ready to talk, you’ve got to do it as soon as possible.”
As a teenager, the presenter didn’t know precisely what was wrong – it was his mum, Shirlie Holliman (from Eighties pop duo Pepsi & Shirlie), who thought there was something “more than puberty” going on, and suggested Kemp speak to a GP about his mental health.
“All I could explain to my mum and to the doctor wasn’t that I was sad – I lived a very privileged life, I had the best childhood ever – but I just felt like I was constantly waking up with this kind of dark cloud over my head, and I couldn’t help but be negative,” he recalls.
But seeking help and treatment has been life-changing, and although being in the public eye when you struggle with mental health has its difficulties (“It’s tough when you’re having a bad day and someone wants to come and talk to you – but that’s the same for everyone”), Kemp feels grateful that his radio job brings him so much joy.
“I could be having the worst moment of my life, but I know, for four hours of that day, I’m going to laugh so much… I’ve got friends that suffer from depression, they have to go to their jobs, but no one talks to them and they just sit at a desk. That’s tough.”
Kemp has felt even more compelled to encourage people to seek mental health support since his close friend, producer Joe Lyons died, by suicide in August 2020. Men are still three times more likely to die by suicide than women, and men aged 45-49 continue to have the highest rate, according to the Samaritans.
“I think people are so scared to even say the word suicide, and that needs to change,” says Kemp. Men, in particular, often find it difficult to open up to friends and family about how they’re feeling – “I think because it’s never been the done thing,” Kemp adds. “We still live in that kind of world [where it’s seen] as a symbol of weakness. Men are so quick to tell each other what gym routine they’re doing to make themselves look physically better, but they’re not talking to each other about what they’re doing to make themselves feel mentally better.
“No matter how 21st century we are, we’re still stuck in a toxic-masculinity world, where there are pressures to be a certain way if you’re a guy.”
Since Joe’s death, Kemp says his own group of friends have become better at opening up to each other – “but I would expect that, because we lost one of our own,” he reflects.
One tip he suggests for encouraging a friend to talk is what he calls the ‘two OK’ rule. “It’s as simple as asking twice – are you OK? The best way to do it is to say it at the beginning [of the conversation] and see what the result is. If they’re not giving you anything, ask it at the end of the conversation when they’re a bit more comfortable.
“With guys specifically – this is good tip – I find that if you’ve got a mate who you think is going through something, if you’re in the car [together] driving, ask them about it. Because guys open up massively in the car, which is weird, but it’s because they’re not looking at each other, they’re looking ahead, things are moving, they’re a bit distracted. I’ve done it with some of my friends and it’s worked.”
But one key realisation Kemp has had when it comes to depression and suicide risk is: “The person who is suffering is never in the wrong,” he says. “They shouldn’t have to pick up the phone and call, it should be my duty as a friend to know how my friends are and know how they’re feeling.
“That’s the kind of responsibility I want to tell everyone that [we] have to our mates – because this one is a proper killer. If it happens to you, which I pray it doesn’t, you can’t get that moment back.”
Filming the documentary was the first time Kemp had openly spoken to his parents about times he’d had suicidal thoughts himself: twice in his life, both times when he’d missed medication. “I had to say it because I wanted to show guys, and girls, that it’s OK to talk to your parents about these things.
“I don’t think my dad knew the severity of it, how badly I suffered with it,” he says, adding that it was “a big step in our relationship – now I feel like I can talk to him about it.”
Over the years, he’s found additional methods to help himself cope. “Self-care for me is playing football – that’s the place for me to get out all my tension or anger or anything that’s been on my brain. For those 40 minutes or 60 minutes, it just dissipates and you have a different perspective on things.”
He also suffers from panic attacks and describes himself as a ‘worrier’. “I worry about one thing and 10 minutes later, it’s escalated into the worst possible scenario. But if I feel myself getting to that point, I’ll go for a walk or a run, or I’ll go to the sauna. I get the heart rate up and carry on with the day.”
Talking is the absolute key. “I cannot stress that enough,” says Kemp, “Honestly, the most simple thing is talking, and talking will will cure everything. I promise you that.”
The new online mental health services can be found on Boots.com/mental-health-support.
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, you can freephone the Samaritans 24 hours a day for confidential support at 116 123 or email email@example.com.
Alternatively, the contact information for a range of mental health supports is available at mentalhealthireland.ie/get-support.
In the case of an emergency, or if you or someone you know is at risk of suicide or self-harm, dial 999/112.