Simon Reeve: My teen mental health torment drove me to the brink

Joe Shute
Simon Reeve - Clara Molden for The Telegraph

Reading old interviews with Simon Reeve there is a generalised glossy version of the narrative arc to his life. In short: raised in a tough corner of West London; left local comp with zero qualifications; applied for job as post boy on Fleet Street; seized the opportunity and ended up carving out a media career as the television presenter familiar on our screens today.

Sitting opposite me in a Covent Garden private club of which neither of us are members – for his all his success travelling through more than 120 countries making multiple award-winning television series Reeve is disarmingly normal - he begins to fill in the gaps in his life story that until recently he has never publicly revealed.

“I feel I’m at a point where I have an opportunity to talk about my early life,” says the 46-year-old, who has a boyish mop of dark brown hair. “It’s been life-changing going through that process and owning and accepting my past.”

Simon Reeve on his travels filming Credit: Craig Hastings/BBC

From his early teens, Reeve suffered terribly with depression and mental health. He lost confidence, friends and, for a time, all hope in life. 

At his lowest ebb he found himself clutching the railings of a footbridge over a busy arterial road near to his home, a moment away from ending it all.

“I can genuinely still feel the railing on the side of the bridge,” he says. “What frightens me is how it could have so easily ended in me becoming yet another statistic. I could so easily have died there and then. It is desperate for me that it took me to the edge before I then began to build a life afterwards.”

That boy on the bridge grew up in a three bed semi in Acton, west London, where his mother, Cindy, still lives. Reeve admits the house bears scars of his teenage years, where he would kick doors and punch holes in the walls in fits of rage. “I had a temper,” he admits. “I still do.” 

He lived with his younger brother, James, and father Alan, a maths teacher who died of cancer in 2001. They made their peace in later life – it was his father who suggested he apply to be a newspaper post boy - but growing up Reeve admits family life was difficult. 

“I was definitely a part of it. My dad wouldn’t beat us, but there would be lashing out. I remember the screaming and total failure of communication to calmly say, ‘we’re a family, this is wrong, let’s work out how to fix it’.”

Reeve paints a picture of himself as a tearaway, ‘bunking and thieving’ with his mates on the grey streets of Acton. There is no exact moment when he began to realise he was suffering from serious mental health issues. But, he says, it doesn’t take much to tip typical teenage anxiety into something far darker. He started attending weekly counselling sessions in his early teens. “On that basis alone, I know it must have been bad,” he says. “It didn’t resolve things but kept wolves from doors. It kept me alive.”

He found it impossible to confide in friends and gradually withdrew into himself. As he grew older he took solace in alcohol. Once he passed out drunk in the school library and woke up to find the lens of his glasses had been covered in Tipp-Ex - for a moment, he thought he’d gone blind.

As exams approached, he started suffering extreme panic attacks. Matters reached a head during one test, where he felt violently sick. He walked out and never came back. 

Alone with no friends and no qualifications, Reeve simply festered in his bedroom drinking cans of Special Brew and watching a tinny black and white television.

“I remember the years of helplessness; a sense of being lost, incapable, and pathetic and frightened,” he says. “That period is ever present.”

Simon Reeve Credit: Clara Molden

He stresses that his parents did try to haul him out of his despair, but simply couldn’t get through. His mum has since told him that she had warned colleagues at Central Middlesex Hospital - where she worked as an occupational therapy health helper - that she might have to suddenly leave “in case I did anything stupid”.

“She knew things were very dark for me and was there for me, but I wasn’t receptive to help,” he says. 

Nowadays, Reeve is a father himself. He and his wife Anya have a seven-year-old son, Jake, and live on the edge of Dartmoor in “blissful” surroundings. Starting a family of his own has helped him finally delve into his painful past, writing his autobiography, Step by Step, which was published in September, and embarking on a nationwide book tour.

He says that at every single talk he is approached by a desperate parent or young person struggling with mental health. 

The Telegraph has been supporting Young Minds as part of its Christmas Charity appeal which ends next week. In the past year, its Parents Helpline has given practical advice and support to almost 13,000 concerned mothers and fathers.

“I’ve been really taken aback by the numbers," says Reeve, who describes Britain’s mental health crisis as a “genuine public health emergency”. 

“There is a lot of sadness and suffering out there,” he says. “There are a lot of unfulfilled unhappy people on these islands, who are sinking rather than rising for all sorts of reasons. We are seeing the consequences of that every day now with healthy young folk who are ending their lives.”

He stresses that we need to do far more to help other young people overcome their demons.  He would like to see greater restrictions on Photoshopped images (similar to those introduced in France) and better guidelines on social media to suppress the modern pursuit of perfection, which can prove so damaging to young people.

He also believes Britain needs to engage in a “national conversation” about mental health, far more wide-ranging than the increased awareness of recent years. 

“There is a lot more we need to accept about our fragility,” he explains. “We are sold a vision of perfection more than at any point in the history of our species. Actually, I’m a fragile human being who can stand on a stage in front of 1,000 people, but still has moments of worry and weakness and concern and deep fear about the fundamentals.”

Simon Reeve filming in the Mediteranean Credit: BBC

Parents, he adds, need to be open with their children. He admits he is desperate to avoid the mistakes of his own upbringing with his own son: “I don’t think I will wait for Jake to come to me,” he says. “I’ve started him young with bribery to talk to us. Rewarding openness and honesty from an early age.”

For Reeve, it was simply a desire to keep going that eventually helped him rebuild his life. Following that night on the bridge, he decided to take a trip to Glencoe and hiked up a mountain in the Scottish Highlands. He started volunteering in charity shops and applying for any job he could find – ‘step by step’ became a mantra. 

But whatever success now comes his way - no matter how far away and exotic the location of his travels - Reeve admits that he never strays far from the shadow of his former self. Nor would he want to.

“We are talking about years of bloody torment, frankly, and beating myself up. But I wouldn’t want to forget that because I want to cherish more what I have got.”

Step by Step, The Life in My Journeys by Simon Reeve is out now (Hodder, £20) An Audience With Simon Reeve is at theatres around the UK from April – check website for dates www.simonreeve.co.uk

Young Minds is one of the Telegraph’s three chosen charities for our 2018 Christmas appeal  There are only a few days left to donate please visit telegraph.ctdonate.org for details about how you can help someone today