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Roman Kemp wants us to talk about the male mental health crisis

Roman Kemp knows grief, and the toll it can take on mental wellbeing. His new book, Are You Really OK? is a plea for more open conversations around mental ill health

Roman Kemp

Roman Kemp. Photos by Lorna Roach. Styling by Harriet Wheeler and Katy Gale. Hair and make up by Luke Benson

When Roman Kemp was a boy, Christmas meant the latest round in an epic gift-off between his mum and dad (Shirlie of Pepsi and Shirlie and Spandau Ballet bassist Martin Kemp), and his mum’s best friend George Michael. The edge frequently went to the legendarily generous singer.

“I was so spoiled,” remembers Kemp. “It was a constant battle between George and my parents as to who got us the best present. When I was like five, my dad gave me a kite while George bought me the new Sony PlayStation, with all the games and all that jazz.”

Michael’s cheeky sense of humour would come out in the presents too. “There’s a picture of me wearing a Liverpool shirt with Michael Owen’s name on the back,” says Kemp, “which I know angered my dad [a life-long Arsenal fan]”.

Now the host of Capital FM’s breakfast show, a documentary maker and author, Kemp is officially a celeb in his own right. While his early Christmases sound starry, he says that wasn’t how they felt. George Michael wasn’t a superstar to him, but Godfather Yog. He was a partner to play video games with or “have normal, boring family chats. He was looking for the nice things that you can do, and he was looking for them in every corner,” says Kemp. One time, he adds, Michael was watching Deal or No Deal when a contestant lost a large sum of money. Gutted, Michael found the guy and gave him the cash.

The whole family still misses him, says Kemp, particularly his mum, for whom Michael was nearer a brother than a friend. But they try to think of Yog with “pride rather than sadness”.

Christmas is a hard time to deal with grief. Our own expectations meet a cultural pressure to have a perfect time – and that can be dangerous if you’re already in a dark place. “The worst thing for me when I am going through depression is when someone says, you should be feeling good. There’s nothing worse than someone prodding you on the shoulder, telling you that you should be happy,” Kemp says. “Unfortunately, as beautiful and loving a time as Christmas is, it can do that.”

For years Kemp wasn’t public about his own struggles with mental health, but in 2020 everything changed. In August that year, he lost his best friend, radio producer Joe Lyons, to suicide.

“Joe was 99 per cent idiot and one per cent genius,” says Kemp. “But annoyingly, that genius would come out quite a lot. He’s this good looking, talented guy. Very charismatic, very cocksure. And his love for me was so clear.”

Following Lyon’s death, Kemp struggled to keep himself together. “With suicide, grief is very confusing,” he says. “You’re left with so many questions. People have this fantasy idea that every suicide is accompanied with a note, or reasoning. The reality is no, the highest percentage of us, myself included, have no idea why our loved ones killed themselves. And we never will know.”

One of the ways Kemp kept his head above water was making a BBC documentary investigating the male mental health crisis. In a climate where suicide is the biggest cause of death for men under 35 and stigma around the topic remains high, Our Silent Emergency helped many men open up. Kemp is pleased to have helped, but at the time the process was more about trying to “fix” himself as he dealt with “mad grief”.

As messages of thanks for the film came in, Kemp realised his openness mattered, so he’s gone the next step and told his story in a book. Are You Really OK? is simultaneously a memoir, packed with humour and love, and a powerful work of advocacy to help people talk about and deal with mental ill health. It’s not just about the person who’s suffering with mental health problems, though. Kemp is also keen to support the people around that individual.

“A lot of the time, that’s women – mothers or sisters, wives, girlfriends,” he says. “There’s a huge thing of always focusing on the person that is struggling. I’d rather focus on their friends. And that’s who this book is aimed at. This book isn’t necessarily meant for someone who’s thinking, ‘I am going through shit so I need a book.’ This is: ‘I want to make sure my friends stay alive.’ And this is how you can do that. It’s not a rundown of: step one, step two, step three, because life doesn’t work like that. But what it does do is give you an insight into some things that you could look out for.”

Are You Really Ok book cover

Are You Really OK? is out now (Mirror Books, £18.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article appears in The Big Issue magazine. Buy a copy from your local vendor.

If you can’t buy in person, you can purchase magazines from The Big Issue Shop or download a digital version via The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play

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