It's hard to empathise with the urge to police someone else's grief. But that's exactly what a man on Twitter did to Sky Sports presenter Simon Thomas, telling him to "man-up and be strong" to set an example for his son. Thomas lost his wife, Gemma, in November, to an aggressive form of leukaemia, and has subsequently shared his struggle to cope with grief in an effort to challenge stigma. Though it's easy to imagine Thomas responding to the cruel tweet with anger, instead, the Sky presenter reacted in a truly inspiring way. He wrote: "As you’re such a 'man' I challenge you to meet me for a coffee (sorry is that too female a drink for you?) and chat this over. I would 100% do this. Would you?"
Responding to Thomas' post encouraging his followers to talk about their grief, the Twitter user said, in a reportedly since-deleted tweet captured by the Mirror: "No, what you do is man-up. You show your son how to be strong and be a man. You deal with whatever is in your head privately — you bite your tongue in half, break your hand punching the wall, headbutt a fridge, cry like a 3-year-old — but you man-up and be strong."
But the sports presenter didn't lose his cool. Instead, he used the exchange as an opportunity to encourage his followers to talk about mental health. He wrote, "Chaps if you're struggling with #mentalhealth issues you're not alone. This is why we have to keep talking about #mentalhealth."
Several of Thomas' followers praised his measured reaction, and thanked him for his efforts in erasing the stigma clinging to grief and mental illness. "Couldn't have imagined a more mature, helpful, sensible response," said one. Another told him, "Big up Simon! Some people simply have no clue about the severity of mental illness, and what it can do to a person and those around them."
Thomas' wife, Gemma, died in November 2017, only three days after being diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia. Since then, he's discussed his struggle to deal with his grief and his subsequent anxiety and depression on Twitter and on his blog, A Grief Shared. He has also appeared on shows like This Morning to promote awareness. The presenter frequently tweets photos of the notes that he leaves for his eight-year-old son, Ethan, in an effort to help him cope with the loss of his mother.
In April, Thomas revealed that he would leave his job at Sky Sports after 13 years in order to dedicate his time to Ethan, saying on his blog: "He's lost his mum; for him so much has changed. I can't always be with him 24/7 but what I have no choice in, is I have to put him first. I need to spend the next few months working out with him how we move forward."
The notion that men struggling with mental health issues should simply "man up" is a pervasive and actively dangerous one, considering that, as the Guardian reports, men are both less likely to tell their friends or family about what they're dealing with, and less likely to seek professional care. As Matt Haig, author of Reasons to Stay Alive, wrote in GQ, an average of 84 British men die by suicide every week, while Prince Harry told the Telegraph last year that he avoided seeking counselling for almost 20 years after the death of his mother, Princess Diana, and only sought help when he began to feel "very close to a complete breakdown on numerous occasions".
Thomas is one of several British public figures who've shared their experiences with grief and mental health issues. As reported by the Guardian, Stormzy talked about suffering from depression on Channel 4 in 2017, Professor Green has made documentaries on the topic, and Zayn Malik has spoken out several times, first in his biography and again to US Weekly, about grappling with anxiety.
On Twitter, Thomas urged his followers to learn from the initial insensitive tweet he received. "Inadvertently his deeply ignorant comments have begun a conversation & its a conversation about #mentalhealth that needs to happen," he wrote. "Don't suffer in silence. Don't listen to the ignorant. Talk. And then talk more."