Mental health awareness week-2017/05/08-UK

ITV’s Matt Johnson on the day he tried to kill himself

 

Seven years and five months ago – he will never forget the date – Matt Johnson was ready to jump. He was at his family’s fourth-floor apartment in the south of Spain, the site of many happy childhood holidays, but had spent days drinking alone, lost under the choking fug of depression, and reached his lowest ebb. “I’d thought about it, the logistics and everything. The decision was done. I got out onto the balcony and had my knee cocked to climb over the railing, ready to go,” he says. Then came a sudden split-second of clarity. “I realised in that moment that it was the first time in years I’d felt truly in control of myself, and the adrenaline running through me reminded me of what I had to live for. So I stepped back, and just collapsed in a heap.” At the time of this suicide matt johnsonattempt, in 2009, Johnson was a 26-year-old reporter based in Cardiff with ITV Wales. He returned to work and told nobody, continuing instead to suffer in silence. His career took off – national television called in the form of This Morning, two years later, where his Welsh charm and designer stubble made him a favourite with viewers – but the ‘black dog’ stayed with him. It wasn’t until three years ago, after working with the mental health charity, Mind, that he decided to make his struggles public. “Even [then], after doing some interviews, depression was something I still felt I had to sort out, in some ways,” says Johnson, 34. Now, in a documentary for Welsh TV channel S4C, Matt Johnson: Depression and Me, he explores his mental health with astonishing honesty, interviewing his family, friends and colleagues, and emphasising the need for men – for whom suicide is the biggest killer of under-45s – to be frank with their emotions. “I wanted to do the film to raise awareness, but to do that by sorting out my own struggles, which meant involving the people close to me.” Most prominent in the film are his two “dads”: his real father, Gary, a retired policeman still living in their home town of Caerphilly, and his “telly dad”, Eamonn Holmes, who worked with him on This Morning for more than two years. Both were unaware of Johnson’s inner torment until three years ago. “[I thought] it’s not right that one human being should look so well, and be upbeat and nice and friendly, and be so good at their job,” says Holmes in the film, recalling his first impressions of Johnson. “I had no idea johnson eamonnwhat he was going through, none of us did.” The jealousy isn’t exactly misplaced. Johnson is likely the best looking and most charming man in any room he enters; certainly the quiet central London bar in which we meet. But this is also part of the reason he was able to hide his depression from people around him for so long. “I’ve always seemed like I had it all going on, especially when it all started. I had a great job, a lovely girlfriend. Anyone who met me wouldn’t have known, but I wasn’t ‘happy’,” says Johnson. During those early years, as a burgeoning presenter and sometime actor in Cardiff, Johnson would turn to drink whenever he felt down. It was something he hid from his then-girlfriend, Alex Jones – now a household name as a presenter on BBC’s The One Show. When their six-year relationship came to a natural end in 2009, Johnson only got worse, leading him to run away to Spain that December. “[Alex] was probably the most patient person I’ve ever met. We lived together, but I’d lost all the zest in my life, I often couldn’t get up in the morning,” he says. “People have suggested I was driven to it by the breakup, but it had nothing to do with the relationship – Alex was brilliant, it was me. I wanted to stop the world and get off it. When I found myself on my own I suddenly had no responsibility. I alex jonesjust got worse and worse.” As with most sufferers of depression, there seems to be no one reason why Johnson’s problems escalated over time. He is now happy and stable, living alone near the Thames in south-west London and working as much as a charity patron as a presenter, including as a reporter on ITV’s Surprise Surprise. Occasional therapy has helped, but he credits lifestyle changes with making the difference. He exercises regularly (including running the London Marathon last month) and is single, but surrounds himself with “good people.” Crucially, he’s also sleeping well. Since he was 17, he has suffered from chronic sleep deprivation, an extreme form of insomnia that has often seen him get less than an hour’s shut-eye a night, leaving him feeling permanently jet-lagged. “I took a two-week sleep test for the documentary, which looked at what factors could help, from diet to screen time and things, and that’s has helped massively. The link between sleep and depression is well-known and backed-up clinically, but it really drove home the importance. In this country we don’t respect our body’s need for rest at all,” he says. In the film he also looked at his childhood, growing up in the rugby-mad South Wales valleys, as a potential contributing factor. “Where I come from, men don’t speak about their emotions a lot, and I had never done that. I think I still process information in the same way, and react similarly to when I was a child. Caerphilly is a small town with a lot of tough men there, but I want those sorts of guys to watch and realise how much better it can be.” While filming on Caerphilly mountain, he spoke to his father (the real one), matt johnsonwho made the surprise admission that he, too, suffered from depression. And had done for 20 years. “That was a total surprise, and so special. He’d never been honest about it before. My grandfather had the same. He would literally put a screen up, using the newspaper to cover his face when he was having a bad time. It’s that attitude men have everywhere, and we want to change it. My dad’s the audience I want to reach.” Holmes, meanwhile, had conducted an interview with Johnson about mental health on This Morning in 2014, a year after he left the show, and looked visibly shocked to hear him articulate his troubles. “Eamonn was so kind to me, and became a real father figure. I never felt like I could tell him, but like my dad at home, I wish I had told him earlier,” Johnson says. Nor did he feel he could tell his friends, even if – unbeknownst to him – they had their own struggles. One of his closest, Tom Fletcher of the band McFly, appears in the documentary to speak about the bipolar disorder – which convinced him aliens were attacking at night – he had suppressed while in the public eye. “Some of the things he went through with a totally different condition were horrible, all while he was touring the world. And I didn’t know. But he’s a guy with millions of fans, who can get the message out. People like him can be so important.”

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