Martin Fisk knows what it’s like to be in a really dark place.
At 18 years of age, he had a complete breakdown; struck down by overwhelming anxiety and depression and unable to get out of bed. He was in a seemingly hopeless place, self-medicating with alcohol and drugs. He knew he needed help but didn’t know where to turn—in the 1980s mental health wasn’t really on anyone’s radar.
Martin’s parents intervened and he received the psychiatric assistance required to get him through this difficult time. And it is a tough time in the lives of many young men. It’s a period some fail to emerge from successfully.
Martin believes it’s his lived experience which has helped him be effective in his role as Chief Executive of Menslink, the Canberra-based organisation which provides assistance and counselling for young men across the region.
By his own admission, it wasn’t until he reached his 20s that he felt as though he had come through the worst, but admits it was a long process.
“When I was a teenager I had a really turbulent time. I really could have used something like Menslink when I was growing up,” Martin says.
But Martin felt that there was still a stigma associated with mental health, especially for young guys and even 20 years later. It was a factor in his decision to apply for the Chief Executive position in 2011.
A complete change from his years of working in businesses such as IT consulting, he wanted to “do something that didn’t focus on making shareholders richer.” He had a stint in the public service before he found his true calling, ‘landing on his feet’ in the community sector.
That has now become an understatement. His influence and the influence of Menslink has saved many lives in Canberra with recent figures showing around 750 young men seeking one-to-one support in the last 12 months, up from 140 in the year Martin started in the role – young men seeking help with stress, anxiety and depression, family violence, bullying, drugs and alcohol, even suicide.
It is, more often than not, the mothers of young men who seek help from Menslink.
One mother, interviewed by the University Of Canberra as part of a study into Menslink’s program effectiveness, had this to say:
“From a mother’s perspective, from a family point of view, from the bottom of my heart, there are no words to describe how grateful I am. I am close to tears. The difference that Menslink made to my son’s life is a game changer. Honest to god, this one person you work with will have a ripple effect on people in my family and that all comes down to Menslink. And I cannot thank them enough. I will be grateful for these guys until the day I die.”
So what brings young men to this point and how does Menslink help?
Martin says family violence is often a contributing factor. “Sixty-two per cent of young guys coming to us for help have experienced violence at home. Eight out of ten of those young men who have experienced violence at home, also go on to use violence themselves. That’s a statistic we also need to change,” he says.
Martin and his team of 14 staff and over 100 volunteers provide a range of services free of charge including mentoring, counselling and small group services. There is also the award-winning ‘Silence is Deadly Campaign’ in schools, which encourages young men to seek help when faced with troubled times.
“We engage with young guys in the way they want to be engaged – no hassle, no fuss, no wait and no cost,” Martin says.
But Martin has noticed a social shift within the community. “We are now in our eighth straight year of an average of 30 per cent annual growth in demand for our services. This tells me on the plus side the stigma barrier is coming down. On the negative side, too many young guys are struggling.
“I’m so glad that Menslink and other services are around to support them when they need us,” he says.
In addition to increasing demand, he has also noticed young men needing help earlier. “When I started in the job Menslink supported the 12 to 25-year age bracket but over the past few years we have noticed that problems that used to be encountered by Year Nine and Ten students at school are now emerging at a much younger age.”
In response, in 2017 Menslink started working with kids as young as 10. “We have ten to 12-year-olds coming to us as victims of family violence. Some have themselves been violent, others are victims of sexual abuse, while some have already started using drugs – even hard drugs, unfortunately,” Martin says.
Tens of thousands of young men in the Canberra region have had their lives changed for the better through Menslink. Martin says he couldn’t be prouder of the work his organisation does in the Canberra community and all the people that enable that work: staff, board members, volunteers, sponsors and donors.
And it is often work that goes unheralded but is nonetheless incredibly significant.
Martin’s experience as a young man, and his search for a life-fulfilling role that serves the needs of others, has resulted in a significant contribution that will live on through the young people that have sought help through Menslink programs.
For more information and to get involved, visit their website.