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Blindside: Helping young men deal with their demons through the power of sport

In conversation by Marco Ricci

Blindside is a series of unique and powerful insights into the issues young men face today, as well as an affirmation of the healing power of sport. Marco Ricci spoke to the man behind the series, Alex Bowdery, to find out more about its development and how it intends to make it easier for young men to open up about their mental health.

Since the mid-1990s, male suicides have consistently accounted for around 3 in every 4 suicides. Currently, the act of taking one’s own life remains the biggest killer of men under 45.

These stark statistics reflect the struggle that men and boys continue to face when it comes to mental health. Because, despite mental health becoming a generally more accepted topic of conversation in recent years, the ‘boys don’t cry’ school of thought continues to haunt our society.

The mentality holds a distinct power over the ability of men to share how they’re truly feeling and is based on the outdated view that emotions like fear or sadness must indicate weakness – something a ‘true man’ could or should never fall victim to.

Challenging this stereotype of men as a gender that can only ever express confidence and strength, and redefining ‘manliness’ instead as a trait that includes the ability to feel and discuss negative emotions, is a key component in the solution to this problem. And ultimately in saving mens’ lives.

Taking a different approach

“As a filmmaker, mental health had always been a topic I wanted to tackle, but I hadn’t quite known what it could be or what it could look like,” says the man in a beanie hat and hoodie on the screen of my laptop. He’s telling me about a new video series he and his team recently created which showcases the very personal – and at times very dark – mental health stories of 6 young men.

The man is Alex Bowdery, owner of Shaftesbury-based video production company Playmotion Visuals. As Alex puts it, his job is to tell stories through the medium of impactful and memorable films and, despite professing to struggle with creating a mental health-specific piece, it seems his new series has hit the nail on the head. Racking up over 1,000 views collectively on YouTube, and doubtless many more across Twitter and Facebook, the series has gained some impressive traction in the space of a few months. It even caught the eye of Stephen Fry who lent his superior voiceover skills for the series’ trailer.

The series is called ‘Blindside’ – a play on the term describing the act of being caught off guard by something, whilst also being a playing position in rugby union. The name also plays into your reaction when watching it as, across six 10-ish minute episodes, six young rugby players deliver raw, honest, and oftentimes bleak accounts of psychological distress, touching on topics of depression, drug and alcohol abuse, and attempted suicide.

It’s certainly not the kind of mental health series you’ll see on everyday TV – but that’s exactly what Alex and his team were going for.

“Up until that point, I hadn’t really seen any videos online that did it that way and instead they would focus on this idea of there always being a light at the end of the tunnel,” explains Alex, his facial expression revealing the underlying frustration he still bears toward modern-day depictions of mental health. “For me, it just didn’t feel like the right approach, especially as I was going through my own bad patch at the time and it definitely didn’t feel like a light at the end of the tunnel existed.”

As it happened, the six subjects of the Blindside series shared his views: “When I spoke to them, they felt the same way when they were at their worst. So we all agreed that we couldn't lie about anything and, even though it was going to be hard to hear for some people, we wanted to present exactly what it was like for these lads.”

The gravity of the topics being discussed is paired with a distinctly powerful visual style. Set against a pitch black backdrop with nothing else to see but the young man telling their story, the visual style of the videos forces the viewer to focus on every word the narrator says. At times, it can feel uncomfortable, but the important factor for Alex and his subjects is that they feel real.

“We all came at it from the perspective of if we’re going to do it, let’s do it properly,” says Alex. “We did have a discussion about whether some of the content was going too far when we were cutting the videos together, but we decided it wasn’t – these interviews had to go out as they were spoken.

“Putting themselves on the line emotionally like that, I think we all felt that was the only way to do it and that doing it any other way wouldn’t really add to the conversation.”

Challenging stereotypes

As with most things in life, Alex’s opportunity to develop the Blindside series arose purely by chance. Enjoying a habitual browse through Instagram one afternoon, he came across a profile that piqued his interest: Dodger Sevens.

Based in Northampton, Dodger Sevens has a unique premise to its team in that all of its players have experienced mental health issues at some point in their lives. The purpose of the team is to act as a kind of support network for young people going through darker periods in their lives, built by those going through similar experiences.

The connection between rugby and an openness of mental health is not one that everyone would immediately make. Considering it’s a sport where physical prowess is everything, rugby is almost the perfect manifestation of the male stereotype, says Alex.

"Because of the very physical nature of the sport, you almost make a presumption that their mental health must be fine because of the pure physical ability they have at their disposal. And from what I got from these lads, because of that stereotype, it’s not easy for them to keep themselves together.”

Yet, with all this said, rugby is one of the more progressive sports when it comes to mental health. Some of the biggest names in male rugby have shared their stories of mental turmoil in recent years, carving the path for young men to share theirs and, in turn, challenge the ‘boys don’t cry’ narrative. The six featured in Blindside – Jack Middlemore, Jack Donovan, Jason Kay, Dom Hardman, Neil Williamson, and Liam Stretton – are all examples of the young men inspired to do so.

“Considering what went out on screen, there was nothing but belly laughing when we were up there filming,” says Alex, his smile edged with sadness. “It goes to prove that you can go out and laugh with your friends but still feel that you’re rotting from the inside out. And that’s what they really wanted to present – that it’s what you can’t see that’s important. I think they all touched on that in their own way.”

Making a dent

The hardest part in any journey is the very first step. But once it’s made, momentum can drastically shorten the amount of time it takes to reach the end goal.

For Alex, rugby helped with the first few steps, and Blindside is part of the momentum for change.

“I think rugby is really progressive with mental health. They seemed to be on the ball way before other sports were, and they continue to be,” he says. “I’ve stayed in contact with the Blindside lads and they still get messages now from people who have been inspired by them and found strength just by watching their stories. It’s really nice to know that it’s helping people. ”

Now that he’s ventured into the mental health scene, Alex wants to keep pushing for change and to break stigmas that continue to persist for young people.

“What we wanted to communicate to younger people was to realise that they don’t have to bottle up how they're feeling and that it’s not embarrassing to feel a certain way. I think we've all been there at one point or another so this whole idea of being embarrassed by this stuff has to go, it has to stop.

“I really hope the stories we’ve shared in Blindside continue to inspire people to reach out and realise that they’re not alone. And by doing so, each and every one of us can make a very, very small dent in what feels like this massive, unfathomable issue. But it’s a dent nonetheless.”


Watch the full Blindside series over at Playmotion Visuals' YouTube channel here.

If you would like to find out more about Playmotion Visuals' work, you can visit their website here.

If you would like to find out more about Dodger Sevens, you can visit their Facebook page here.


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