Mark Virgona and Chris Jongebloed have been friends for years. They’ve shared milestones, travelled abroad and played football together. They even share a factory for work – Mark is a manager at a security company, and Chris works in construction.
If they look familiar, it may be because they paired up on My Kitchen Rules back in 2017. It was during this time that Mark first spoke about his mental health struggles, namely his diagnosis with depression and how his friendship with Chris was a key factor in his recovery.
Mark and Chris are both big advocates for opening up to your mates when it comes to mental health. So rather than speak on their behalf, we thought we’d let them do the talking.
Tell us how it was then
Chris: The first time I met Mark was nearly 20 years ago. We got on really well straight away, and I thought I knew everything about him within the first five minutes of chatting.
Mark is honest, has a heart of gold and loves being the centre of attention. These are all traits that I love about him. They’re the reason he’s my best friend and was the best man at my wedding.
Mark was the last person I thought would ever suffer from depression.
Mark: Five years ago, my life looked amazing on the outside. I was married with two beautiful, healthy little boys, I owned my own house and I had my own business which was doing really well. Everything seemed great.
On the inside though, I was suffering. I had no drive or passion. I was always tired. I didn’t go out. I didn’t socialise. Summing it all up, I wasn’t myself.
I had depression. But I didn’t know it.
Chris: It was pretty easy to tell things weren’t right for Mark. He would talk about feeling down for a few days and just couldn’t see the positive side of anything we spoke about.
This was definitely out of character.
Mark: The truth was, I was struggling. While business was great, it was also very stressful. I started taking work problems home with me. This put a strain on my marriage.
I started losing sleep because I was overthinking. I always felt nervous. My heart would race every day and I couldn’t control it. I regularly felt confused and struggled to make basic decisions. I began going to work very tired and battling to get out of bed.
Eventually my marriage ended. I hit a breaking point of sorts and needed a coping mechanism. I chose alcohol. Things got worse. I considered ending my own life. More than once.
I thought that if I spoke about it, I would be an embarrassment to my kids, to my family. Fortunately, I did. And Chris was the person I reached out to.
Chris: When Mark mentioned that he wasn’t happy, we would chat on the phone every day and then catch up when things got a bit rough for him.
During this period, I found myself dishing out opinions based on my limited understanding of depression. I thought Mark just needed to get some exercise and eat healthier, and his depression would go away.
As it turned out, taking a stab at the right advice wasn’t what he needed. What actually helped was just being there to listen.
Mark: I’ll never forget what Chris did for me. It was the little things. He wouldn’t tell me to ‘snap out of it’. He’d invite me to dinner with him and his wife, and we‘d laugh like I hadn’t for ages.
I hadn’t played sport for six years, but Chris got me along to play football with him. The exercise was great, and I made new friends. Being part of a team again was amazing.
I also sought professional help. When I decided to see my GP, I was actually relieved to be diagnosed with depression. I was finally going to be treated for something that had been hurting for what felt like an eternity.
I went to see a psychologist. He wasn’t quite the right fit for me, so I saw another. She was great. I started taking medication to help with my depression. After six months, I stopped. I was in a better place. I could manage without it.
And what about now?
Chris: Mark and I have known each other for quite a long time. Like with any relationship, the more time you spend with someone, the more you learn about them, about their triggers. Mark doesn’t need to say a lot for me to pick up on things.
Mark: I think I’ve changed my perspective. These days I try to be more open minded. If someone's going through a bad phase, just because this doesn't seem massive to you, it might be massive to them. That’s how I used to feel, so I’ve embraced being more sensitive to what’s affecting other people.
I think the way we talk about this kind of thing has evolved, even last year with the coronavirus. All of a sudden, we couldn’t go for a kick of the footy or meet at the pub for a beer. Obviously we would speak over the phone, but it’s not always the same.
Chris: Still, we were probably luckier than most, because up until recently we lived around the corner from each other. Which meant once restrictions eased, we could meet at the park – I’d bring my dog for a walk and he’d take his boys for a kick.
I tried to put a more positive spin on things. Obviously not being able to see Mark and my other mates as much, I spent a lot more time with my partner, which was definitely a silver lining in a tough situation.
Mark: We’re both pretty glass-half-full, so we got a real kick out of achieving goals during the period – I bought a house and Chris had a baby!
Chris: One thing that sticks in my mind a bit was around the time last year in Victoria when you could first go exercise with another person. It was amazing how just going for a walk and a chat was such a release. It just felt like you could get so much off your chest.
Mark: When I think back to how things were when I was first struggling and compare it to now, we’ve come a long way. Men are getting better at opening up, at least in my circle. There’s still plenty of work to do, but the signs are good.
I remember one time I was speaking at a school in Ivanhoe for Father’s Day about my experience. There were more than 100 blokes in the room, which was very daunting, but the feedback afterwards was awesome. I couldn’t believe how many of the dads actually came up and wanted to share a piece of their story.
It’s those moments, the conversations you didn’t necessarily expect, that really stick with you. You feel like you’re making a difference, and that change is happening.
What would you tell someone who's worried about their mate?
Chris: Keep it simple.
It’s not going to be the same solution for everyone. It’s about knowing the person, and what will encourage them to open up. I know for me, sometimes I just want space, whereas someone else might be the type that really wants you to pick up the phone and call.
That doesn’t mean you need to bombard them with questions – it’s just about being conscious of what kind of support that person prefers.
Mark: You don’t have to say too much, it’s more about lending an ear. Listening is so important, and so is compassion when you’re trying to get a gauge of where they’re at.
Just let your mates be your mates.
If you're struggling, contact the Beyond Blue Support Service by calling 1300 22 4636 or visit beyondblue.org.au/get-support/get-immediate-support.