This group of friends is on a mission to save lives, and they're meeting with great success.
The pandemic is causing grave emotional and psychological damage around the world. The people who are most fragile risk being crushed by despair. Rick Roberts and Mick Leyland, both of whom have a history of mental health problems and homelessness, understand this crisis all too well. Today, they lead a volunteer organization called Bearded Fishermen that works to intercept and offer support to those who are enduring mental distress and feel tempted to take their own lives.
Same storm, same boat?
Dr. Antonis Kousoulis carried out a research in England on the impact of the pandemic on those with mental problems. His comment in an article published in the New York Times gives us food for thought: “We are seeing that we are all in the same storm, but we are not all in the same boat.”
The pope himself, on the evening of March 27 in St. Peter’s Square, began his extraordinary prayer for the pandemic with the image of a boat in the storm.
Isolation is a treacherous enemy that gains strength over time. The need for social distancing tends to lead to an implicit perception of us being in a situation of “every man for himself.”
Indeed, according to the Times article, the research mentioned above has shown that the first negative emotions that emerged during the pandemic—anxiety, stress and panic—have gradually diminished. But tragically, “feelings of loneliness and isolation had persisted.”
Fishermen caught in the dark
The lives of Rick Roberts and Mick Leyland changed when they found themselves in the same boat, or rather on the same riverbank, in Gainsborough, a town of 23,000 souls in the county of Lincolnshire, England.
The New York Times reports that the two men, before knowing each other, had both attempted suicide, and Roberts had spent some time experiencing homelessness. Roberts and Leyland became friends when when the former moved to Gainsborough and joined a fishing group in which Leyland participated.
“We both suffer from depression and anxiety, and so fishing was a release for us,” Roberts told the New York Times. “We used to sit there just chatting about things that we won’t chat to anyone else about.”
Soon, they realized that the same kind of fellowship could help other men in difficulty. They started a weekly community group. The group members would meet at a local community center, where they’d drink tea and open up to each other about their problems. That’s how the Bearded Fishermen project was born.
With the pandemic, the Bearded Fishermen project had to change form, but not substance. The true value of a work can be judged, in part, by its malleability: If the need changes, the response to the need changes as well.
The Bearded Fishermen moved their meetings online and set up a call center. Eventually, they started their suicide-prevention Night Watch, which monitors “known suicide hot spots.”
In groups of 4, equipped with GPS, flashlights, radios, and first aid kits, they go around to watch over areas deemed high risk (i.e., where many suicides have occurred). They also offer to help families whose members suddenly disappear.
Mick Leyland, one of the cofounders, told the New York Times, “There are a lot of people here who have been out of work for a while, who desperately want work. They get to that point where they think, ‘I’m better off not being here.'”
Last week, they rescued a young 28-year-old man. His wife had called their emergency number scared because her husband wanted to commit suicide.
When they arrived, the man had already written a suicide note. They spoke with him, referred him for counseling, and called public emergency services to ensure his immediate safety.
Fishermen in the storm
We’re all in the same storm, but we don’t feel like we’re in the same boat. And, as I mentioned before, the pope last March 27 went back to the same metaphor in reference to New Testament accounts:
Why are you afraid? Do you have no faith? Faith begins when we realize we are in need of salvation. We are not self-sufficient; by ourselves we founder: We need the Lord, like ancient navigators needed the stars. Let us invite Jesus into the boats of our lives. Let us hand over our fears to him so that he can conquer them. Like the disciples, we will experience that with him on board there will be no shipwreck. Because this is God’s strength: turning to the good everything that happens to us, even the bad things. He brings serenity into our storms, because with God life never dies.
Peter and Andrew were called by Jesus to leave their boats to become fishers of men. Mick and Rick were called to leave their own suffering and to accompany those in the storm. They felt the desire to “go fishing” for other men, after sharing with each other the darkest parts of their personal history.
These are two different yet similar storylines. Both start with a friendship that changes the friends’ perspective and catapults them into the world (and out of their own problems). And both are changing the world for the better.