Interview

Bear Grylls on mental health and masculinity: ‘It was a dark, difficult time – I had a major reset’

The TV survivalist has become an outspoken advocate for mental health support for men. As he launches an app designed to tackle the stigma surrounding male mental illness, he speaks to Maanya Sachdeva about trauma, criticism and fame

Friday 24 November 2023 06:30 GMT
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‘Nutrition is important, friendships are important. A problem shared is a problem halved’
‘Nutrition is important, friendships are important. A problem shared is a problem halved’ (Jonathan Hordle/Shutterstock)

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Before finding fame as television’s grittiest survivalist, Bear Grylls experienced a terrifying near-miss. This was 1996, when Grylls was 21 and serving in the SAS. He was skydiving in Zambia, and excited to take part in what was meant to be a routine parachute jump. But nothing about what happened next was standard. After his chute failed to open properly, Grylls continued hurtling towards the ground at breakneck speed, tumbling more than 16,000ft in total. Then everything went dark. When Grylls woke up in hospital, he learnt he’d broken three vertebrae, and that he might never be able to walk again.

“That accident was definitely a dark, difficult time for me at a young age,” the 49-year-old Grylls tells me today. “Things that I had taken for granted, like my health, my job and my skills, were suddenly gone. I had a major reset in my life the way you hope is never going to happen.”

Less than two years after he broke his back, Grylls became one of the youngest people to climb the world’s highest mountain, as he achieved his dream of scaling Mount Everest. “[The accident] was why I became so focused on Everest,” he continues, calling the challenge “an extreme form of therapy” amid trauma that he felt “ill-equipped” to deal with. “[But] it’s not a duplicatable model to say you have to take a one in six chance of dying in order to be healed.”

In the years since the accident, Grylls has become an outspoken advocate for mental health awareness and support. In 2022, he released a self-help book titled Mind Fuel, packed with daily strategies for building mental resilience. Now he’s teamed up with Love Island star Dr Alex George, the UK Youth Ambassador for Mental Health, to launch a first-of-its-kind “mental fitness” app that’s tailor-made for men.

“There are a lot of incredible mental health apps out there but they tend to be quite soft or female-oriented,” he says. Mettle, he adds, targets the “forgotten demographic”. According to the Mental Health Foundation, one in eight men in the UK experience anxiety, depression, or stress. It is also estimated that men make up 75 per cent of the country’s suicides. When you offset these statistics with the findings that 40 per cent of men feel uncomfortable talking about their mental health with their friends, family, or a healthcare professional, the gendered stigmas around it come into sharp focus. Mettle is a bid to combat them, Grylls explains.

There was always an heroic assumption [about me]. I never felt comfortable with [it] because I knew behind all of that there was a ton of struggle

He calls the app a “toolkit” for men to help them build mental resilience so that “we’re ready when the storms of life do come inevitably”. It uses gamification elements to encourage positive habits for users that can help boost mental wellbeing, as well as an AI chatbot that customises each user’s health journey. Not included, though, is advice of the more fantastical variety. Men, Grylls says, may not “find it not so appealing to do breathwork or listen to pipe music”.

The app’s lofty goal is to transform the way men think about mental illness: “They think it’s an admission of weakness,” Grylls says. “We’re trying to change that into an admission of battle.”

I ask Grylls which tools and techniques make up his own “arsenal of weapons”. “Sun on my face, bare feet on the ground, and movement – first thing in the morning,” he says. He also incorporates cold showers or ice baths into his routine. “Nutrition is important, friendships are important,” he continues. “A problem shared is a problem halved.”

Upon the release of Mind Fuel, some critics and readers suggested Grylls had “oversimplified” the problem of mental health, and that some of the strategies he suggested – such as going for a walk – might seem incredibly daunting to someone experiencing a serious mental health crisis. How does he view that criticism now? “I didn’t do that book lightly,” he tells me. “I did it in consultation with a psychologist who then ran it past mental health charities.” Nothing is going to be perfect, Grylls adds. “It’s the same thing with Mettle; it’s not going to be perfect but what’s the alternative? Do nothing and never get any criticism?”

Since 2017, when he wrote an op-ed about confronting mental health issues, Grylls has continued to champion the cause publicly. No stranger to mapping difficult, uncharted territory, Grylls says he decided to speak out to dispel the idea that he is some kind of Superman. “There was always an heroic assumption from the TV shows,” he says. “I never felt comfortable with [that] because I knew behind all of that there was a ton of struggle. I didn’t want people to assume that [everything is] always all great. I’ve got no problem saying that life is hard sometimes, just like the wild is hard sometimes. And it all starts with vulnerability and humility, before you build up from that.”

“But,” he adds, “build up from rock – not from sand.”

Mettle can be downloaded via the Apple app store now, and arrives on the Google Play store soon

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