How Skateboarding Can Help Fight Mental Health Stigma

After pro skateboarder Ben Raemers died by suicide, his community rallied round to spark a conversation about mental health.

In May 2019, professional skateboarder Ben Raemers died by suicide at the age of 28. 

The news of Ben’s death shook the global skate community – he was known for his incredible talent on a skateboard, and he was well-loved off of it. People naturally gravitated towards him and his rare quality of character. His curiosity and excitement for life was infectious. 

Ben’s approach to skateboarding – with his unique blend of transition and street skating – meant that he was one of the few British skaters to gain an international reputation over the past decade. In that time he rode for US-based companies like Enjoi and Converse. 

Skateboarding still mourns the loss of Ben. In the wake of his passing, the Ben Raemers Foundation was founded to end the stigma that prevents skaters from discussing mental health issues. It profiles professional skateboarders who have struggled with their own mental health in a film series called SMiLE. Crucially, they also deliver suicide awareness training to skate shops and teams like Palace and Isle.

VICE spoke with Rob Mathieson, one of four trustees of the foundation, to discuss the important work they’re doing.

VICE: The Ben Raemers Foundation was founded after Ben's death in 2019. What was the aim behind setting it up? 
Rob Mathieson:
I guess originally it was to continue Ben's legacy, and for something positive to come out of it. The day after Ben passed, a group of his friends went to Victoria Park [in east London], where Ben skated a lot. By the end of the day, there were so many people there from different strands of the London skate scene, because Ben was just really good friends with so many different groups of people. It had such an effect on everyone. 

We raised quite a lot of money selling t-shirts, and Jack [Brooks, filmer] had raised money for a bench to be put in at the park. It needed £5,000, and the fundraiser was on £10,000 ridiculously quickly. So all of these people were prepared to donate and we thought: “Is there something positive we can put this money towards?” So that was sort of the pot that started everything off.

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You partly use the foundation to remember Ben with photographs and videos, posted to the foundation’s Instagram page.
Yeah, there’s just so much footage and photographs of Ben. Everyone’s got a photo of Ben, so people send them in and suddenly there's so much media that people haven't seen, which hopefully gets people looking at our page. Then people see the skating and see all that sick stuff and maybe they accidentally learn something. Do you know what I mean?

Yeah, definitely. Being a pro skater – and also being the person he was – his life was well documented. But if the page can act as a tool for education and helping people learn at the same time, then that's great.
The thing is that Ben was so well known, especially after King of the Road was on more mainstream channels. After those came out, you’d be walking down the street and random people would stop Ben, after having watched it. They knew nothing about skateboarding, and they liked Ben as a character from this TV show they’d seen.

When he was really young, Ben was on The Groms as well. In recent years, I can't think of anyone UK-based that also had that international reach. 
He’d sort of kind of grown up in the spotlight, as far as skateboarding goes. He was a prodigy – he went to America and made it. He was internationally known – he was not just a UK skater. He had three Thrasher covers.

Is there a correlation between the fact that the skate community is made up predominantly of young men and the general lack of open discussion around mental health? 
Possibly, yeah. I mean, in skateboarding there’s a lifestyle of drinking and partying that goes with it and that sort of life can be very macho. It's a lot better now, and I would like to think that Ben's passing did have an effect on that. But I don't think that’s just in skating – I think maybe young men who like playing football struggle with it just as much. I think it’s not wanting to show weakness or vulnerability, I guess. 

Photo: Rich West

Do you think there's a level of bravado in skateboarding that helps prevent people from speaking openly about mental health, as though it's easier to maintain the sort of status quo? 
I don't think it is limited just to skateboarding – but I think so, yeah. You don't want to be the sad or boring person, you know. You don't want to bring the mood down. If everybody is having a good time on a skate trip or whatever and you don't feel particularly good, you might not feel like it’s a good time to share that.

Skateboarding is perceived as a very cool thing to do for a living, so I guess sometimes people feel they can’t bring an element of negativity to those environments. 
That’s interesting. We’re doing another SMiLe film and one of the things someone says is: They felt like they shouldn’t be able to feel bad, because they're very aware they're a white male who has grown up with that privilege – and they’re now a professional skateboarder who goes on skate trips, and they feel guilty for feeling bad. They feel guilty for having [mental health] issues, so they don't want to bring them up. But of course, everyone is going to feel that way sometimes and it's fine to have down days.

The foundation has delivered mental health training in partnership with Grassroots Suicide Prevention to some UK skate shops. How do you think this has benefited their staff? 
Well, from the feedback, everyone seems to be very happy with it. It's kind of sad, because a lot of the people knew Ben. When I did the training, I found myself learning things that were signposted in Ben's behaviour, which if I'd known at the time could have helped. But the shops have that power now, so that’s good. If you work in a skate shop, you’re going to see kids coming in all the time because it’s a place where they can hang out. The idea behind it, is that if people working in those shops see a kid – or someone from the community – struggling, they’ll have the knowledge to spot the signs. [They’ll know] how to signpost them in the direction of the help they might need.  

Which shops have you worked with?
We did Slam City Skates, Palace and Lost Art. We also did one with team managers across the industry as well, so a lot of the brands. The idea behind that is: The team manager is the one arranging trips and trying to keep control of everyone; and again, if someone's on a trip and they’re not doing well, it’s useful for the team manager to have those skills. We also did Isle, Converse, Lovenskate, The National, Magenta, Adidas, New Balance and the Supreme European team manager, so we’ve trained quite a lot of people in that. 

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Do you think team managers working for brands have a responsibility where their riders’ mental health is concerned? 
I don’t know if they have a responsibility, but I think it’s important for them to be aware. You know, skate trips are skate trips. You go skating all day, then you get food. Depending on what company you ride for, you might have the company credit card and everyone gets drinks. Then you get up the next day and go skating and drink, and people are smoking weed too. I mean, whatever you’re doing is fine, do whatever you want to do, but then there's a pressure for everyone to keep doing it. And you don't want to be left out. It came up in the film with Aaron [Herrington, Polar Skate Co]. It’s just having the tools to spot things. For example, Nick [Jensen, Isle Skateboards] had anxiety and struggled sleeping in a room with five other people, so maybe one night he needs to get a hotel room on his own, just so that he can get a night's sleep. Things like that.

That makes sense – having team managers that are on the lookout for those things and know how best to help people. 
It's definitely a skill that I think is useful for [team managers], rather than just being the person who's got the credit card and booking the hotels. But also [it’s for] the skateboarders and the other people on trips. If you can see it in your friend, it’s the same. Ideally, everyone would know how to spot the signs.

Many pros go on to work for brands or start their own companies, but how difficult can it be for those who make it to a professional level to pursue a career once their days of riding professionally are over?
I don't really know. I guess it's the same as lots of professions. It's something I know that Ben struggled with. In skateboarding, you have no structure. It seemed like he needed something to do. He would often just come over to mine and sit in the room while I was working, because sometimes he couldn't go skating and his job is to be a professional skateboarder.

It was especially difficult riding for an American company as well, because no one from that company is really about here in London, as opposed to people like Nick [Jensen], who can just go skating with the Isle riders. I think he struggled with the lack of structure, so that must be difficult when you finish skateboarding. From literally having nothing to do all day, some days, to suddenly going into having to be somewhere at particular times, and have some sort of regular job. 

Have you got any future projects you would like to tell us about or is everything sort of on hold because of COVID?
We’re about to roll out suicide prevention training in partnership with Vans, Cons and LivingWorks to a wide variety of team managers, riders, photographers, filmers, skate shops, and distributors across the industry in the US. And then more SMiLe films – we’ve got the one coming, but a lot of it rests on COVID and trying to get around it at the moment. The plan was to be very event-based and spread things that way, so we’re having to adapt I guess. We also have a very special shoe coming out with Converse soon.

Thanks so much for chatting, Rob.
Cheers!

@jhwhitelaw

Tagged:

uk, Skateboarding, skating

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