Tim Rhys-Evans interview: ‘Mental illness should never be suffered in silence – there is always hope’
In 2013, renowned choir master Tim Rhys-Evans felt suicide was his only option. He speaks to the Independent about why he hopes sharing the story of his breakdown in a documentary will help others
Tim Rhys Evans’ life has always been full of music. From the age of five, piano-playing was his passion. He met his husband Alun when they were both choristers and later founded male voice choir Only Men Aloud, which made its way into the public consciousness when the 15-piece ensemble won a BBC talent show. A five-album record deal, tours and a series of high-profile performances followed, the Royal Variety Show, the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony among them, Rhys-Evans at the centre of it all “sprinkling the stardust”, as one close friend puts it.
Yet in 2013, the same year as being awarded a MBE for services to the industry he made a suicide attempt and was admitted to Cardiff’s Whitchurch Hospital, a psychiatric facility. While his mood was being stabilised by medication, he made another attempt on his life and he was left unable to listen to music. “It was too painful a reminder of the man that I wasn’t and it was also a reminder of a life I thought that I would never have back,” he tells me. “It was a self-defence mechanism to shut it out.” Then, a laugh: “I couldn’t even listen to my beloved The Archers.”
How had a man who seemed to have a real zest for life come to be so low? Unbeknown to his husband, friends and family, Rhys-Evans had endured months of suicidal thoughts, insomnia, and panic attacks without telling anyone, self-medicating with alcohol to help him sleep, while working 16 to 18-hour days on the choir and his Aloud charity, working with young people. He eventually came to the conclusion that suicide was his only option “I just didn’t see the point in my existence.”
He has made a frank documentary, airing on BBC One tonight, telling his story to help the one in four people in the UK who experience some kind of mental health problem. Given that suicide is the most common cause of death for men aged 20-49 in England and Wales, he wants to make sure that feeling this way is no longer anyone’s “dirty little secret”. For him, it was a secret he didn’t know he was keeping. Or at least didn’t recognise what he was suffering from.
“I thought everyone had suicidal thoughts,” he says. “I didn’t feel sad or tearful, I just didn’t want to live.” After speaking to his GP, it took for Rhys-Evans to be sitting on the tour bus mentally making a list of everyone he should write to before ending his life, to realise how far he had spiralled.
While there are now no shortage of programmes about the experiences of depression, including from famous names like Stephen Fry and Ruby Wax, Rhys-Evans’ frank retelling of the lowest months of his life is an eloquent but unflinching look at a mental breakdown. In the film, he reads from the suicide note he prepared for his loved ones and opens his notebooks filled with poetry and ramblings written in spidery letters and weird, fantastical drawings. To talk to, he’s matter-of-fact, with that certain brand of bleak humour that comes out of the darkest of times. At the beginning of his stay, he recalls a staff member suggesting that on recovery he could start a choir at the hospital. “I said, what are we going to call it ‘Only Nutters Aloud’?”
A combination of therapies – both talking and art therapy – medication and support from friends and family helped Rhys-Evans to bounce back and now, nearly three years on, he is back singing and working as musical director of the Aloud charity. Yet he was nervous when the documentary first aired on BBC Wales in March, particularly for how it might affect his work with youngsters. “I was concerned that some parents might think ‘I don’t want my child in the care of this man who has a history of mental illness’.” He need not have worried, he was inundated with texts and messages, strangers came up to him in the street to say that after watching the film that they had finally been able to confide in someone or gone to see a doctor. “A lady thanked me for enabling her to understand why her son killed himself three years ago.”
Rhys-Evans now lives what he says is a “simpler” life. There is no more working around the clock, he takes time off, tries to do painting, walks and running and is back listening to his favourite radio soap.“I guess I’m trying to be kinder to myself,” he says, using one of those phrases beloved of therapists but harder to put into action. “And not have unrealistic expectations and wonder why I am feeling poorly? Why do I want to kill myself?” He is more careful with his diet and watches what he drinks, and tries to limit his time on social media. “The demands on every second of our time are so great. Being the wittiest person on Twitter, having the most followers…I know some people love that way of life, I realised that it takes its toll if you don’t look after you.“
He recognises there is no quick fix and is taking each day as it comes. He still takes medication twice a day and has regular consultations with his GP. “It’s nice to be a fully-functioning adult again,” he admits. “I really didn’t think I would ever get back to work, I just thought I’d burnt the candle way too low, there was no getting back from it, but you really can.”
His message to viewers is this: “If there is anyone reading this who is feeling suicidal or is feeling like there is no hope, there is always hope and there are amazing people out here who can help you, so tell somebody, talk to anybody.”
Anyone struggling to cope can contact The Samaritans for free on 116 123 or at samaritans.org.