A Comedian’s Journey from Despair to Hope by Michael Ford

Just a decade ago, Jake Mills was climbing the ladder as a young stand-up comedian. But away from the laughter and applause of the British circuit, his life was no joke.

“As manifested in my own mind, it seemed confused, meaningless and on the downward spiral,” Jake told me.

Despite Jake’s close, supportive family, loyal girlfriend, and good mates, his journey was a gradual demise, with medication and drink helping him escape momentarily from a prevailing sense of “nothingness, numbness and disconnect.” He was simply existing “without any connections from my heart to my brain,” treading water day after day, not just in performing comedy “but, even more so, in love, affection, guilt and everything.”

It was his brain rather than his heart which would tell him how to feel, whether he was watching his beloved Everton football team, listening to music, or simply chatting to close friends. He was living inside a bubble which nobody at the time recognized, least of all himself. “There was disconnect with everything. A numbness. There was just nothing there. When I went to do comedy, I was just on autopilot. I might get a little buzz if it went well. But if it didn’t, it would affect me even more. It was really difficult to feel anything. Sometimes I would even get into altercations and fights but nothing serious. I wasn’t on drugs but could understand how it could lead to that.

“It was emptiness every day, whether I had relationship problems, money problems or employment problems. Where was my life going? It was a cauldron of not feeling well and not doing something about it at an early stage.”

Jake, a former Catholic altar boy living in the northern English city of Liverpool, would sometimes go to cathedrals for solace, finding them places of safety where he didn’t have to pretend and wouldn’t get disturbed. But one day, without any sense of premeditation, the 23-year-old drove to a quiet residential area, left telephone messages for his loved ones, turned off his cell phone, and waited for his body to be found.

Jake was stopped in his tracks when, through the windshield, he noticed a child running towards his father in front of the car. Jake, who had always longed to be a father himself, didn’t want the boy to catch a glimpse of him in his state. “I tore myself up inside that I wasn’t capable or worthy to be a parent. As the boy went out of sight, I wrote a note. Then, my girlfriend, Rachael, who had alerted the police, just happened to find me before it was too late.”

After deciding to share his story on Twitter, Jake got a surprising response. When the American actor Robin Williams took his own life, Jake was invited on media platforms, including radio programs and TV shows, to tell a comedian’s story of depression and despair. After each broadcast, scores of people got in touch. The actress Emily Watson and comedian James Corden retweeted his messages. He wrote a blog, then more and more people contacted him. He says he was staggered but also energized.

“I had fire in my belly. This was justice. Why were all these people being left without knowing where to go? Why were they coming to me and not talking to anybody else?”

Today, in his early thirties, Jake is not only happily married to Rachael with two children, Teddy and Nancy, but has also become the founder and chief executive officer of Chasing the Stigma, one of the most successful mental health charities in the UK, soaring to unprecedented levels in the past couple of years. Jake came up with the name—“chasing” meaning “ridding”—after running to raise awareness. “As a non-runner, I felt this was really pushing the boundaries of my comfort zone. I initially ran two half-marathons and then, in 2015, decided to run 100 miles inside a year.”

The charity soon caught people’s attention across the country, and requests for help poured in. But at the time of the Covid lockdowns, the fledgling organization’s future hung in the balance when funders pulled out. It was always intended to be as self-sustainable as possible, so Jake didn’t have an idea how it would survive. But after every Covid-related government announcement, such as the need for schools to close, demand grew and grew.

Jake was astounded as he watched Chasing the Stigma receive up to 200 hits a day. During the last seven months of 2021, more than 128,000 people accessed “The Hub of Hope,” a unique database which instantly connects people to the right kind of help, something Jake himself had desperately needed when he was depressed. Of these, 110,000 came from the National Health Service UK alone. This amounted to a 78 percent increase for the unfunded, uncommissioned charity, which found itself bearing the brunt of all the cries for help. These included people with existing mental health problems who weren’t getting as much support as they needed; those feeling deeply anxious about sudden isolation and had no idea what to do with their shift of mood; and, later, those who had been comfortable enough alone in their homes but had worries about readjusting to life as the lockdowns began to lift.

The Hub of Hope is said to be the largest, most comprehensive mental health signposting in the UK, if not the world. Now, wherever you happen to be in the UK, you can use an app to pinpoint the nearest available help or best national link. It could well be established in the United States. In Britain, there are posters on every rail station, at national car parks, in hospitals and breweries. Charities, businesses, and peer-support groups are also promoting the service funded solely by donations or through fees for the offering of company training and selling training packages. Even the Home Secretary mentioned the service in a letter read by constituents across the land.

“As soon as I began speaking about my own battles, people started coming to me,” said Jake, in his office in the Waterloo district of Liverpool where a large glowing red candle gave the room an aura of welcome and tranquility. “I suddenly felt I had a sense of purpose. I had a responsibility. It gave me validation. It was almost like a therapy for me. I’m now helping other people and that’s given me a reason to exist. I didn’t know what my sense of purpose for living was. Now my staff and I have that passion, that drive, that lived experience, the hurt and the pain to offer to others. This is why we exist today and have pushed through every single barrier.”

As I sat and listened to Jake’s articulate recounting of all he had been through and achieved, I couldn’t help thinking that he had a sense of vocation every bit as powerful as a call to priesthood or the religious life.

Growing up in the West Derby area of the city, Jake told me that he came from a close Catholic family. His father, Tony, is a bricklayer and one-time altar server, his mother, Jan, a community nursery nurse. His older sister Jessica, who lives in Australia, works in banking. Like Jake, she, too, was once an acolyte at St. Matthew’s Church in Walton, Liverpool. Jake was educated at St. Matthew’s Catholic School and Cardinal Heenan High School, and later at Liverpool Hope University where he focused on media studies, specializing in journalism, public relations, and marketing, useful skills for his current work.

“As a child I was always very anxious and awkward,” he told me. “I definitely had social anxiety but I didn’t know it, nor did my parents. I have always been a homebird. I’ve never liked being away from home or being away from my comfort zone. If I ever went on school trips, I would be sick or upset and phone home. I even stayed at home while I was at university. Then some media lecturers suggested I try stand-up comedy. Most people would have thought I’d be the last person to do that. But, for me, it was not so much about performance but a superpower. I felt confident. The shy, nervous, awkward kid could do it.”

Jake’s self-deprecating style of dry humor took him all over Britain, winning him plaudits if not masses of money or a guaranteed future. And while he found the constant traveling, waiting around, and lonely nights in hotel rooms difficult to handle, he discovered comedy as “an incredible tool” for uniting people of all different backgrounds—those you wouldn’t ordinarily find together in the same place—and making them laugh.

At a time when political correctness is making daily headlines, Jake says he doesn’t think anything should be off-limits for comedians because “that’s censorship,” but at the same time he doesn’t believe everything is funny and he wouldn’t joke about certain issues. “The beauty of comedy is that it’s open to interpretation unless it’s incredibly offensive. While one person might laugh at a joke, another might not crack a smile. There’s something beautiful in that. Comedy can disarm awkwardness and we use it in our programs at Chasing the Stigma.

“When people speak of physical health, they usually think first of something positive, like exercise or a healthy diet, but when people hear the words ‘mental health’ they automatically think of something negative like mental illness—anxiety, depression, suicide, or schizophrenia. This is what creates the stigma. Mental health itself is not a bad thing. We all have mental health.”

One of the key aims of his charity is to encourage people who may be suffering in silence to realize that they do not need to feel isolated in their loneliness. There is always someone who can help. Ten years ago, Jake didn’t know where to turn. Even after his suicide attempt, police officers turned up—not to offer compassion and support, but to tell him off. And general practitioners, possibly trained in another era, didn’t even ask to see him—they simply told him by telephone to double his anti-depressants. Thus institutions such as the police and medical profession, which should be setting the example, can sometimes contribute towards the stigmatizing of mentally ill people. The more Jake discovered, the more angry he became.

He points out that the British government might regard 6,000 deaths by suicide each year as an inevitable statistic, but suicide, he says, is preventable and much more could be done to lower the figures.

While Jake admits that he has had ups and downs since his darkest hour, from the moment he focused on creating something to help others, the feeling of numbness left him. As a result of the experiences of both hitting rock bottom and taking on his new role, Jake says he is now much more aware of his thoughts, feelings, and mental health in general. Through the conversations he has generated within his circle of friends and family, should he feel himself slipping again or struggling, he can be honest, name it, and find something good for himself. Quite often, this means giving himself permission to take time off to sleep, exercise, or do something different such as cooking. Balance is essential. “I feel I know a lot more about my own mind and body to be able to cope. I am a stronger person. But, if I have moments or times when I struggle, I will be honest with my wife and together we will find what is right for me.”

Jake believes that his work today, while not affiliated to any particular faith tradition or culture, can be seen as complementing the core values of his own Christian formation, especially in terms of caring, looking out for others, helping people through, lifting them up, and inspiring them to lead their own lives in greater peace. If you are brought up with a certain faith, it naturally becomes part of your make-up and how you live your life.

“My story was not unusual but, once people heard it, it was enough for them to get in touch. That was when I realized the power of lived experience and the power of hope. People were seeing me and thinking ‘that’s somebody who looks, talks and acts like me and has got through it.’

“When I think back 10 years to what my life was like then, it would have been impossible to imagine where I am now. I don’t want to put myself on a pedestal but I am proof that there is a way through. No matter how lonely or isolated you are feeling, you are never alone.” ♦

Michael Ford is a biographical writer and ecumenical theologian living in the UK. His features for TAC reflect a lifelong interest in the spiritual and psychological journeys of women and men from all walks of life. He may be contacted at hermitagewithin@gmail.com.

Image of Jake Mills by Michael Ford

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