The Hillsborough survivor on a mental health mission
When he visits firms to speak about mental health, Martin Roberts still wears the same pair of brown brogues he wore the morning he planned to kill himself in 2017.
Had his wife not stopped him, it would have been the tragic culmination of years of emotional anguish that started on April 15, 1989 – at Hillsborough Stadium.
“They’re my most important possession,” he says. “To me they’re a constant reminder of the path I was going to walk that morning, but more importantly, the path that I walk now, day in, day out.
“When I was admitted to that mental health hospital, my wife threw out everything that reminded her of that morning, except that pair of shoes, and we’ll never know why. I wear the shoes whenever I go to do a presentation. They’re a reminder of where I’ve been.”
Halifax-born Mr Roberts was a 20-year-old Liverpool season ticket holder when he went to Sheffield to watch his team play Nottingham Forest in that ill-fated FA Cup semi-final match.
The events of that day have been well documented, not least by this newspaper and by the inquiries, private prosecutions and inquests that eventually resulted in six people being charged in 2017 with offences including manslaughter by gross negligence, misconduct in public office, and perverting the course of justice.
Mr Roberts survived the crush of fans at the Leppings Lane end of the stadium and helped the wounded on the pitch – he has a press photo of himself tending to a stricken supporter – but he certainly didn’t escape unscathed.
In the months and years that followed, he joined the Halifax Building Society, as it was then, and embarked on a successful career that saw him manage the BACS operations at HBOS and become a programme manager for Lloyds. He got married, became a father and led an ostensibly normal life. But underneath, the Hillsborough Disaster had become, he says, part of his DNA.
“I went to that game one person but came away a totally different person,” he says. “That stigma was there years ago, and certainly I wasn’t as a 20-year-old person going to tell people that I was depressed, or that I was struggling. I just hid it and got on with life. That’s probably the biggest regret I have.”
Untreated, the emotional wounds festered, coming to a head 28 years after that awful day in Sheffield.
“My wife was diagnosed with a bone tumour, my dad was diagnosed with cancer, and four years prior to that my mother died of dementia, and also coupled with the ongoing Hillsborough inquiries, everything came crumbling down around me and I got so bad I wanted to take my own life.”
Thanks to his wife’s intervention, Mr Roberts is now on a mission to inform, educate and enlighten people about mental health issues, drawing heavily on his own experiences.
He is Mental Health Lead for Group Transformation at Lloyds Banking Group, but he spoke to The Yorkshire Post on behalf of his own company, Keep In Mind Ltd. Through this new venture, Mr Roberts speaks to employees in client organisations, offering strategies to stay mentally healthy and promoting wellbeing within and beyond the workplace.
“I’ve not read textbooks, I’ve not got qualifications – I suppose the only qualification I’ve got is my own personal life and experience,” he says.
Crucially, he also identifies mental health warning signs, which he says can be easily missed by people not in the habit of self-examination.
“Depression wasn’t in my vocabulary. I was brought up in the 80s, and mental illness was something you didn’t even talk about, so I didn’t really know what depression was until I found myself at that stage of my life.
“I ignored the signs that I was struggling at the time. It was something I continued to hide, but I knew eventually it would come to the surface.”
Mr Roberts says educating people in business about mental health issues – and encouraging those in need to ask for help – has never been more important, given the extraordinary stresses exerted by coronavirus.
“I don’t think we’ve even reached the tip of the iceberg during this pandemic when it comes to people’s mental health and wellbeing,” he says.
“We know that at Hillsborough a lot of people lost their lives, as they have during the pandemic, but Hillsborough was a specific moment in time – six minutes past three – and within an hour or so a number of people died. But the pandemic’s been a long, elongated process.”
He is particularly concerned about people just starting out in the workplace and the responders on the front line of the emergency.
“Young people will go to jobs who have never been to an inter-view face to face, and imposter syndrome will kick in in some cases – ‘Why was I given this role?’ – which could lead some to put more pressures on themselves.
“The frontline workers – the NHS and the other services – have been in this mode of ‘just getting on’. But when the time comes, and people reflect, post-traumatic stress disorder is going to impact a lot of people.”
Yet with crisis comes opportunity, and this is one he says everyone should seize for the sake of their mental wellbeing.
“We keep hearing about returning to work and ‘getting back to normal’, but who wants to do that?” he says.
“We have got a huge opportunity to reset our personal and professional boundaries. People need to look at what gets them up in the morning, what is it that makes them tick.”
His mission, he says, is its own reward. The thought that he might have made a difference to just one person is what keeps him going.
“I’ve been at the bank 30 years, and I’ve now got what I think is probably the most important role I’ve ever had,” he says.
“My mother always used to say you always find your true vocation in life.
“I never thought my experiences of 32 years ago would end up with me in the role I’ve now got and the work that I do outside the bank on mental health. It’s strange how things pan out in life.
“I can’t change the past, but I can change the future.”
• Born and bred in Halifax, Martin Roberts left school in 1991 and started a job at the Halifax Building Society.
• By that time, he had lived through the Hillsborough Stadium Disaster, which was to profoundly affect his life.
• He stayed at the Halifax for over 16 years, and ended up managing its BACS operations in both Halifax and Edinburgh.
• In 2007 he joined Lloyds Banking Group as a senior project manager and later became programme manager ensuring compliance with GDPR legislation.
• He is now mental health lead for Lloyds’ Group Transformation division.
• He has also set up his own company, Keep In Mind Ltd, and speaks to employees at client companies, offering strategies to promote good mental health and wellbeing in and out of the workplace.
If you’d like to contact Martin about any issue concerning mental health, please email [email protected]