AS Northern Ireland model Emmette Dillon stands in front of the camera he carefully crafts an image he wants the world to see.
Recently Emmette beat off stiff competition to be crowned Mr Derry, as a result he will now compete in the Mr Ireland final on July 2 in Dublin.
The prolific cancer awareness campaigner has been juggling his modelling career and a job in nursing for the last three years, having been a model for nearly a decade.
But, as he prepares for the final of the all-Ireland competition, Emmette says he’s hoping he will be able to use his position as Mr Derry and a finalist in Mr Ireland as an opportunity to highlight how mental illness can affect men from all walks of life.
He explained: “To describe what I have lived with is very hard, all the terminology is very vague. In the most basic sense it would be anxiety and depression. In reality what that actually means is that at times I’ve felt absolutely nothing or immense anger and pain or an overwhelming sense of not wanting to think or feel.”
As Emmette found himself plunging into the depths of despair there were times when he even contemplated ending his own life.
“Even talking about this now makes it sound like I’m telling someone else’s story, but when you get so deep in pain, anger and resentment and it’s all attacking you at once you do have thoughts and debate the rationale behind whether or not it would be better for your friends and family if you weren’t here to cause them pain.”
Emmette believes that by speaking publicly about his own experiences that it will encourage others to speak up.
“It’s so important to talk. When you are in a downward spiral it’s easy to get lost amongst your thoughts.
“People can easily become burdened not only with their own mental health issues but also the thoughts of not wanting to burden their friends and family which is what usually begins the cycle which can result in considering or even acting on the impulse or rationale of contemplating suicide.
“Personally, I know that my first reaction to my family witnessing me having a panic attack was immense guilt. My mum was battling cancer, as a family we were doing our best, but obviously it’s a stressful time and you begin to bottle things up, it’s like gradually becoming barricaded behind a brick wall, each stressor builds and builds and you subconsciously adapt and ignore it, naturally everyone has a breaking point.
“Although my family were amazingly understanding that I was battling the prospect of losing my mum; wanting to be a supportive son; studying for a degree and more, in my mind I decided I would never allow anyone to see that weakness ever again.
“After mum’s passing I went into work mode, I began to develop my cancer awareness campaign while working full time as a nurse, as the campaign grew, the demands on my time followed suit. Don’t get me wrong, it was an amazing time and I had some amazing experiences, but looking back, the cracks were evident.”
For Emmette, the added pressure of being a perfectionist and a high achiever meant he was never happy with the results of his hard work.
Grieving for his mum was also taking it’s toll.
“If I felt as if I wasn’t hitting my self composed targets I would beat myself up” said Emmette, adding: “That would result in me feeling as if I was failing my mum’s memory. Sleep became a distant memory, and a constant sense of anxiety meant eating dropped down the list of priorities.
“As it took its toll every aspect of my life was affected, I became increasingly paranoid and sensitive and felt the need to isolate myself from friends and family just simply for fear of bringing them down.
“For me nobody could bring my mum back so there was never going to be a solution to the main problem. Wanting to be with her and missing her became my new normal, an unbelievable burden.”
Eventually Emmette realised that avoiding the issues and the problems and ignoring them by filling his life with other things wasn’t going to be the answer.
Learning to cope was his strategy.
He explained: “You learn to cope, for me that involved taking time to step back and grieve for the loss of my mum and realising that I couldn’t change the world overnight and that that was ok. Accepting that my mum would appreciate the hard work I was doing to get her message out there was important.
“I had amazing friends and family, realising that I had to talk to them and communicate about how I was feeling and allowing them to help was important.
“Instead of pushing them away, I let them in. I focused on talking to them and rebuilding the relationships that had been fractured.
“I personally found that writing, performing, meditating, improving my diet and exercising all helped.
“I learned how to be honest all the time about how I felt and I learned to say ‘no’. Even at my lowest I felt an immense need to take on more and more to prove to the world that I was coping.
“I wasn’t taking time out to have fun and relax and look after me.”
Now that Emmette has opened his heart about the truth of his own battles he’s hoping that as Mr Derry and a Mr Ireland finalist he can begin to raise awareness for men’s mental health issues.
“As I compete in these competitions and honour my commitments as Mr Derry I really want to encourage all men to be ‘free to feel’. There’s a real stigma for many men that opening up means they are somehow ‘weaker’.
“Talking to those you love and those who care about you can have a huge impact on your health, and for those who don’t feel that is possible there are many services out there that are confidential and really effective.
“Education is key, so I would like to develop an app and education programme for those who have and currently live with depression or anxiety. My hometown Derry and the North West have some of the highest rates of suicide in Europe among 18-35 year olds. I feel very strongly about ensuring these people have someone to talk to and a light at the end of the tunnel.
“Above all we need to keep challenging our views and realise that the only certainty in life we have is that anyone can be affected by mental illness.”