From skyrocketing to stardom with boy band McFly in 2004 when he was just 16, to forming supergroup McBusted nine years later, to getting McFly back together in 2019 after a three-year hiatus, Dougie Poynter has had an extremely eventful music career.
Now Poynter, 33, is heading up a new Samaritans campaign, alongside his bandmate Tom Fletcher, 35, encouraging ordinary people to actively support each other during a Covid-induced mental health crisis. He spoke to us about how the band support each other, and how he’s learned to look after his own mental health…
What led you to get involved in a mental health campaign?
"The campaign is encouraging people to be better listeners, which I think is a lot harder than it sounds. I know I struggle with it. Me and Tom have been friends for 17 years and have been through a lot of ups and downs, and even so we’ve been absolutely terrible at talking in the past.
"We had a band therapy session a couple of years ago, and it’s amazing how much you can sort out just by talking properly. One of the things I love is the idea of ‘checking in’ – when you say how you’re feeling physically, and how you’re feeling emotionally. And I found that just awesome – you immediately know where you stand. I wish it was more of a thing."
Did that therapy help you all as individuals, as well as as a group?
"Yeah totally, and it’s about reminding ourselves how to communicate and normalising that. I catastrophise – if something is wrong, or someone doesn’t come in all guns blazing cracking gags, I can think ‘we’re never gonna be able to write another song’. So it’s about normalising someone feeling down – that it’s OK to be like that. Maybe in an hour’s time they’ll feel completely different."
Received wisdom says men are worse at talking about their problems – do you think that’s true?
"Yeah. We’re not very macho dudes at all – everyone in the band is extremely sensitive – but even though we all know that, we still struggle to admit it in a serious way. We even wrote a song about it for McBusted called Sensitive Guy, which was making fun of that fact."
How do you work out when someone else is struggling?
"It’s difficult because we all put on such a front. It’s weird – I don’t know why we feel like we have to do that. We know each other well enough now to know if something’s up, but the hardest thing is actually bringing the mood down for a bit, and really asking ‘dude, are you OK?’ without it being ‘oh yeah fine, cool, anyway…’ I’m extremely awkward and I panic and overthink those kinds of situations – it’s one of my biggest character flaws."
What does ‘being an effective listener’ really mean?
"Often if someone comes to you with a problem you feel like you have to fix it by saying ‘well, what I do is this, this and this’. That can help but it can also not, because you both end up just talking at each other about problems.
"We all deal with things in different ways and in different circumstances, so sometimes it’s worth just truly, 100% listening. I was watching an episode of South Park the other day, where one character was trying to get another to stop freaking out, and eventually he just said ‘wow that’s terrible, how can you fix it?’ and let his friend get there himself, rather than trying to control it. I thought that was awesome – seeing that wisdom in South Park."
The pandemic has been dreadful for mental health, but it feels like people are talking about it more than they used to. Do you think the situation is better than it was when you were younger?
"Yeah, it’s become way more normal for people to open up. Back in the day, I didn’t even know what anxiety was, or panic attacks. I genuinely just thought I was dying – ‘oh my god I’m dying, I’m dying’ – and would have to get home, power up the computer and wait for Google… ‘Why do I feel like this… oh, that’s anx-… anxiety?’
"Now people are talking about it openly, and I find it really awesome when it’s people I look up to in the public eye. I’ll think ‘oh well they’ve got it all sorted, wish I had their life’ and then they’ll say ‘actually, I’m terrified of this’ or ‘I’ve been really down’… I’m really stoked that it’s become the norm to talk about it…"
What do you rely on for your wellbeing in day-to-day life?
"I'm quite aware of my own mental state these days, and there’s a few different pillars – exercise, diet, meditation and sleep. I can get away with one of those not being around on any given day without things collapsing, but any more than two and I start not being in the greatest headspace. Meditation is something I dabble in, but my concentration is awful and I’ll often look up after [what seemed like] half an hour and be like 'oh my dude it’s been two minutes’.
"Also staying in touch with people, and having conversations for absolutely no reason. I talk to people a lot when it has something to do with work or it’s about something creative, but I love calling someone up just because. I’ve had a few great chats with mates during lockdown – like really long ones, because with nowhere better to be, no one’s got any excuses!"
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How has your pandemic been overall? Have you managed to keep working?
"Yeah, that’s been really fortunate. We have odd jobs anyway, as we don’t get paid on the day we make something – we spend months and months making something and get paid a year after. I’m always in the headspace of ‘keep making stuff no matter what’, and I’ve been able to play guitar and record crappy demos and send them off to different band members.
"We haven’t been able to go into the studio recently because our drummer’s been isolating with Covid. A few days ago I had an idea I was really stoked about, and for a second I was bummed but then I thought ‘well, why not just send it to Tom as a voice note?’. He sent me back what he thought, and I felt like I’d accomplished something that day."
What’s been the hardest part of lockdown?
"Christmas was a write off, but I thank technology again, because I was able to play video games for hours and hours with friends who also couldn’t go home to their families. Winter sucks anyway. The first lockdown was about gardens and walks and exercising, but as soon as the novelty wore off and winter hit, it was like ‘oh man, there is nothing to do.'"