Roman Kemp is many things: breakfast radio DJ, television presenter, pin-up of Gen Z and son of the former pop stars Martin Kemp and Shirlie Holliman.
At 28, he has carved out a successful TV career, beating stars like Ian Wright and Caitlyn Jenner to be a runner-up on I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! and twice hosting London’s New Year’s Eve celebrations.
By anyone’s standards, including his own, he is living the dream. But behind closed doors Kemp has been battling depression for 13 years.
It is a situation that many men face but don’t discuss. In 2019, 4,017 men ended their lives by suicide; the highest number for two decades and the biggest killer of men under 45.
Last year, this hit home, when his radio producer and best friend – Kemp calls him his “brother” – Joe Lyons, was found dead while Kemp was live on air. The shock has moved him to speak out in a new BBC documentary, Our Silent Emergency.
“Since I’ve been 15 I’ve been on my own mental health journey, which starts with being on antidepressants, and moving through staying on antidepressants into my adult life,” Kemp reveals, speaking via Zoom from his home in central London.
“I wasn’t ever ashamed of it with my friends,” Kemp says, “but from a public point of view, did I want the general public to know I was taking antidepressants the whole time? No, because they’d just say, ‘oh, you’re a celebrity kid’.”
He has had many obvious advantages in life: loving parents, numerous friends, good looks and an expensive private education. But as a teenager things took a dark turn, and his worried mother – one half of the former Wham! backing singers Pepsi & Shirlie – forced him to open up to doctors about his private anguish.
His mother’s side of the family has a long history of depression, stemming from a chemical imbalance. It is something that Kemp has inherited.
Each morning he wakes up at 5.15am, takes a vitamin D tablet and sertraline, the antidepressant, then makes the short journey to Capital Radio’s studios in Leicester Square, before millions of people tune in to hear him joke and jostle with some of music’s biggest stars.
“I’d go to work, I’d enjoy my life, I’d be happy, but then I come home, one thing triggers you, and all of a sudden you’re in this different head space, and that’s where it becomes dangerous.”
Without the pills he is “thrown into a dark place”, he says. “
At those moments you do enter that horrendous place in your head, whereby the smallest little problem because the biggest worry on this planet and completely engulfs you. It’s like going up against a horrendous fighter in your head who is just beating you up, and you can’t stop that.”
Kemp has none of the guardedness or self-aggrandising typical of most celebrities, let alone the children of celebrities.
That’s why he wants to use the documentary to tell his story in full – including his darkest episode 18 months ago.
Tears are streaming down his face, he talks of that day. “All these pressures just came on top of me. I remember being in the bedroom, not knowing what to do, and the only thing I could do was going to the floor, on my knees, with my hands around my head, and just crying. I remember saying to myself, ‘What’s the point? Why am I carrying on?’”
The news of Lyons’ death a year after Kemp’s lowest point left him “absolutely destroyed”. “My heart was ripped out of me, complete numbness,” he says.
The reality of grieving caught him off-guard and Kemp admits he “felt so angry that he never spoke to me”. “It was hard for me to drop that anger, because every time I would get upset I would think about, ‘How could you leave me? How could you leave us? Your parents and everyone?’”
Out of that confusion was the idea for the documentary, which has been “his therapy”. Kemp covers many aspects of this national crisis: young men bereaved by losing friends, as he has, a man who says a puppy gave him cause to live again, and the gut-wrenching scene of admitting to his own mum how he intended to kill himself less than two years ago.
But nothing hits home more about the need for this documentary – and for youth culture figures such as Kemp to speak out – than his night spent with a specialist mental health emergency service convened in Nottingham.
While he’s there, a 16-year-old boy rings the helpline saying he “wants to die”. A man talks to the boy on the phone in the hope of helping. His colleague, herself a young woman, gets another call. “There’s a suicide risk for a 13-year-old coming in,” she says. “There are definitely more younger people coming through who are struggling at the moment. Thirteen is very young. The youngest we have had is 11, who made an attempt.”
Like the rest of us, Kemp is stunned. More people have experienced a mental health crisis during the Covid pandemic than ever recorded before, with teenage suicides spiking.
“This documentary, if anything, proves to me that mental health issues, or anything of the like, doesn’t wear a uniform,” Kemp says, recalling being oblivious to his own best friend’s struggle. “Just start asking if your mates are OK – really OK. You never know.”
‘Roman Kemp: Our Silent Emergency’ will be on BBC Three on Tuesday and at 9pm on BBC One
To contact Samaritans, call 116 123 or visit samaritans.org
This content was originally published here.