Mental illness can ambush anyone. That’s the message you take away from tonight’s powerful documentary about Tim Rhys-Evans, the choirmaster who achieved national success with Only Men Aloud.
In 2013 Tim’s career was on a high and he was awarded an MBE by the Queen. But on the inside, he was crumbling. In Tim Rhys-Evans: All in The Mind (shown earlier in the year on BBC Wales) he gives a movingly honest account of his depression and suicide attempts.
His testimony makes for the sort of programme that sends you away wanting to check your friends are OK, because one of its lessons is that people can be on the point of suicide while hiding the crisis they’re in from everyone around them.
“The thing about mental illness is that it’s a devious little shit,” Tim says frankly. “It sits there and it knows exactly how to get into these dark places that can really mess with your head…like this ugly destructive, clever creature.” The fact that the person we see saying these words appears articulate and a picture of sanity adds to their weight.
Only Men Aloud reinvented the idea of male voice choirs and won the BBC’s Last Choir Standing talent show in 2008. They went on to critical acclaim and commercial success – spearheaded by Rhys-Evans. “Tim sprinkles the stardust,” a friend says.
But he was also, by his own admission, a perfectionist who worked tirelessly in his desire to drive the choir on. They got a record deal; they sang at Buckingham Palace; they appeared on the Royal Variety Show.
But while outwardly at the height of his success, internally Tim succumbed to depression. “I’d been asking too much of myself. I’d become used to feeling exhausted.”
As a child he had been given a hard time at school in Wales. He had tried not to let his more flamboyant side show, he says, but he was bullied and it left scars. “A lifetime of telling yourself you’re rubbish and you believe it.”
One of the striking quotes in the film comes when Tim talks about why, as his demons started to take over, he dismissed his own suspicion that he might be depressed. “I don’t feel sad or tearful,” he thought at the time – the received idea of depression. “I just don’t went to live.”
It’s Tim’s testimony and films like this that can, hopefully, help brush away the remnants of a stiff-upper-lip view of psychology. We all know it – the view that likes to confuse clinical depression with feeling down, or sees anxiety disorders as about being high maintenance or “neurotic”.
For that reason alone the programme is worth watching, but also for Tim’s insights on how it feels to have your sense of self implode and to keep that a secret. He reads from his 15-page suicide note (“I’m sorry that I’ve abdicated the responsibility but… I can see no other way.”) He tells how he gave his less healthy mind the nickname Derek, the devious creature that was undermining his sanity.
And he tells too of how a superb mental health crisis unit of the NHS saved his life more than once. They are the heroes of the film, and a gentle reminder that mental health services are no luxury. When the Dereks within us ambush out of a clear blue sky, any of us could need services like those that saved Tim.