His lyrics have a rusty clang of street life and the soaring grace of poetry that expose and torture fragile emotions. They have propelled the rapper Professor Green from his chaotic upbringing to international stardom.
The award-winning singer-songwriter’s words have also become a script for a generation that is using a raw honesty to face mental health issues and force painful experiences into the open.
For Professor Green, whose real name is Stephen Manderson, it has been a mechanism to deal with a dark past: an extended family of six brought up in a three-bedroom council flat, his world splintering when first his 16-year-old mother left them and then his 18-year-old father, who later committed suicide.
As he has achieved global stardom, potentially he could bask in the glory and leave his past behind, but the 33 year old is determined to offer a fresh perspective on mental health that resonates with a generation who have also had fractured family lives.
He speaks candidly about his challenges in a short film just released by the Heads Together campaign. He is also patron of Calm, the charity dedicated to preventing male suicide in the UK.
“By the time I was one, I had already suffered abandonment and then came the chaos of growing up to learn that my situation wasn’t like everyone else’s,” he says.
“Every day started for me with that horrible feeling, a wretched knot in my stomach. It was present from my earliest times until recently.”
Manderson was brought up by his nan and great-nan in east London and his early years were pockmarked by his father’s erratic visits and school absences.
“I’d tell my nan I had a stomach ache, which saw me take a lot of time off school. But as a kid how do you articulate that you have anxiety? You don’t know what it is and furthermore you shouldn’t be suffering from anxiety as a kid. You should feel safe. My nan, great-nan and my uncles and the family were amazing, but as a kid you just want a mum and a dad.
“Dad was in and out of my life and that made matters worse. It was hard getting me to school sometimes. But as I put on a brave face no one ever knew there was anything wrong.
“It got pretty bad though and I spent a lot of my time alone and screaming where no one could hear. There were a lot of good moments, but largely my growing up was unhappy. Not because of my circumstances but because I couldn’t engage with happiness the same way everyone else did.
“I was always scared of it.
I believed that anything that went well was going to go wrong and I constantly worried what was round the next corner and when my dad would walk out again.”
The caustic pain of loss and bewilderment flares into the lyrics of his hit Read All About It: “I wonder what I did to make you hate me. I wasn’t even five.”
In 14 words, he crystalises the loss, confusion and loneliness generated by his father’s distance and eventual suicide in 2008 when he was 43. He later discovered that an uncle hanged himself.
“There was a huge portion of my life when I just stopped talking about it,” he adds. “I tied my laces up and cracked on, like many do. You might stop but the world doesn’t. It’s a hard world to live in sometimes.
“The change came one day when me and my nan had a conversation. She said, ‘Maybe you were so anxious as a child because you thought one day you’d come home from school and I would have left you and Nanny would have left you?’ I’d never thought of that and that changed things and gave me a reason for the way things happened.
“It was the first conversation we’d had after Dad’s death. She was showing pictures of my dad and normally I can disengage emotionally, but everything came to the surface and it was stuff I didn’t even know was still there. It made me a hell of a lot more self-aware, especially of what my dad and my uncle did.
They both took their lives and it made me think I have to take care of myself. Talking is huge part of it but it is also about being aware of when I feel low and doing things that make it better – not things that make it worse. It’s easy to do the quick fixes, but they’re only temporary.”
Manderson has fronted a powerful BBC documentary – Suicide And Me – stripping back the layers of complexity on suicide. He’s currently working on a harrowing examination of the impact of child poverty.
He is also part of the Heads Together campaign, spearheaded by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, which recently released 10 video clips of people talking about how they used the power of conversation to overcome mental health challenges. He is filmed with cricket superstar turned TV presenter Freddie Flintoff MBE discussing the struggle men have addressing their issues.
“Freddie said something that really made me think. Like him, I used to put a face on it, so everyone apart from the people at home would get the best version of me,” he adds. “I could be having the worst day internally but talking a good game, then go home and be a different person to the people who really deserved the best of me.
“That conversation changed everything and from that point it was out in the open and I was able to talk to my friends about it.”
Reaction to that openness has been overwhelmingly positive and was underscored by a YouGov study, commissioned by Heads Together, which showed that 46 per cent of people have had a conversation about mental health in the last three months with the figures highest at 57 per cent in the 18 to 24 age group.
Paul Farmer, chief executive of the charity Mind, has said society has reached a “tipping point” in its attitude to mental health.
“The survey reports that younger people are talking more about it which shows that, generationally, we are getting more aware,” adds Manderson. “The more we talk about it and the more people in my situation address it, the better.
“It’s important that everyone has their own conversations but sometimes it takes people in the limelight to say, ‘Do you know what, I’m going through this as well.’ For people to think, ‘The person who I thought was the most confident person in the world is going through exactly the same thing as me so it’s OK for me to say I’m not coping.’
“I was worried about people seeing me when I was vulnerable. All the musicians I loved were really honest in their music but you never saw that side of them.
“There are a lot of parallels in what Freddie and I went through and we have things we’ll have to deal with for the rest of our lives but the great thing about these videos are that, although there are bits that will make people cry, they are not depressing. If anything there are more laughs than tears. That’s being British – no matter how dark times are, we manage to get through them and still make light of things.
“This work has to continue; it has to snowball. I hope we are at the tipping point but we can’t rest on our laurels. It is really important that we continue having conversations – everyone of us. It’s not just about people like me; it is about everyone.”