Boys in Mind Meets...
An Interview with Roger de Wolf:
By: Jo Symmons
My name’s Roger de Wolf and I’m a Supervisor and Off-Site Practice Educator for Social Work Students. I’m also a trained Social Worker, Probation Officer and was a Drugs Worker, and came from a photography, theatre and education background. I learnt that I wanted to work with people back when I was involved with running a ‘Playbus’ as a rural Somerset community development project. It had begun to lose its funding at the time and I gradually built it back up. Today, I also run freelance training and carry out a lot of non-managerial supervision. I trained and became an associate of a company that runs a 15-hour motivational programme called ‘Goals’ in prisons, rehab and hostels, where I learnt a lot from that about self-esteem and how to stabilise and support it.
I’ve made it my business to never do anything that I didn’t love doing and I can honestly say that I’ve kept to that. I was working with young families who were struggling in economically deprived areas when I was working on the Playbus. People were talking to me about their issues and I was spending a lot of time listening. I then trained as a Youth Counsellor and did some voluntary youth counselling work in West Somerset. As I started training things began to come together. I learnt about getting supervision for myself which was hugely needed, as sometimes it could become stressful to take on other people’s issues. Within my roles as Probation Officer and as a Drugs Worker I did a lot of listening to young people and staff, and I realised that listening was something I enjoyed almost more than anything. I was a Supervisor for volunteer drugs workers for 11 years and it was something I loved. What’s interesting is that I’ve had quite a zig-zag career, but everything I’ve done felt like that was what I was meant to do.
As a Supervisor, Mental Health impacts my role very directly. The students I work with on placement are sometimes doing very stressful work and are working with people who are themselves distressed. They have someone like me to look over their shoulder and I supervise, listen and teach to help the students through. I help them to unload and make sense of what they are feeling. Students can be going through a crisis of confidence and I coach and support them through that. I’m constantly looking for ways to help people stabilise their mental health. I learnt about Supervision when I did voluntary counselling work in Somerset. It took a long time but I eventually got around to being someone who could offer supervision and not just use it. I still regularly have my own supervision with someone who knows me really well and that’s very important to me. I think it’s important to find balance. I very much enjoy all the different things I do, and my free time I’ll go on trips away and hill walks once a month, and I enjoy hosting a cookery stage at music festivals.
The fact that I’m still in the Men’s Group I started nearly 30 years ago is one of my proudest achievements. I’m the only original member! It’s very much a place of support and we’ll cook, walk and talk but mostly we just listen to each other. It’s a place to discuss what it is to be a man in the 21st Century and we’re all committedly anti-sexist, good listeners and there to support each other. We’ve always been interested in each other and listened to one another in a non-judgemental way. The group has changed over time; the composition of the group has changed and there’s been changes of jobs, health crises and bereavement along the way. We’ve seen each other progress and just knowing that the listening space is there is deeply important to me. The men’s group has been and is a great support for us all.
I think it’s a myth that men can’t communicate. In some ways it’s very hard for men to learn to be listened to and to listen to each other. However, men can communicate very well; we just tend to do it very differently and it may not sound from the outside like good communication or good listening. Younger men tend to communicate around activities and the pandemic put a stop to these activities. Those casual conversations which then turn into deep conversations may not have been able to happen for quite some while. For young men the difficulty may have been that they were missing something they might have never put a label on; the conversations people drop into around an activity. Hopefully this is easing now and people are able to engage in activities once more.
The best bit of listening I was ever in receipt of was with I guy I knew who I played snooker with regularly. I was having a difficult time and he could see my game was off. He asked what was wrong and listened, and when I’d finally let off steam he said to me “Yeah, you’ve had a terrible time, but you know, you mustn’t let it affect your game” That was one of the funniest and wisest things anyone’s ever said to me. It could have sounded kind of flippant but it was spot on. That’s what mental health is all about I think – carrying on and having a decent life, having pleasure and being able to function no matter what’s happening to you.
The advice I would give to my younger self and to young men today would be to say it, whatever it is – talk about it, but be careful who you talk to. As a young man and as a child indeed I was fairly unhappy. I used to get depressed and towards suicidal on occasions and I couldn’t see that it would ever be any different. I didn’t like myself and had low self-esteem. However, I came through it and I got and still get help. I would say to anyone feeling this way that there will come a time when you learn to like yourself and raise your own self-esteem. Just hang on, talk to someone and it will get better. I would also say that as a man you can’t let women be responsible for your emotions. We’re dealing with our own stuff and most of us have female partners but we don’t depend on them for our emotional health. That’s one of the strengths of the men’s group and it shows how invaluable it is to have space for men to talk.
It’s quite rare for men to lean on each other for emotional support that’s why I think Boys in Mind is brilliant. I can see a lot of boys and young men becoming responsible for themselves and I would like to say how much I admire the young men working for Boys In Mind. For some of the first young men who told their stories it was a tremendous step to take and has led the way for others. It’s an amazing thing to know these young men are now going out into universities and workplaces and spreading the message. They come across as such grounded young men bound to have influence wherever they go and I have tremendous admiration for them and the level of insight that I certainly did not have myself at their age.
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