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Brian Henderson enjoying the outdoors in Hong Kong. Henderson battled mental illness for two years, and recently founded Whole Business Wellness to promote good mental health for people and organisations. Photo: Jonathan Wong

Men need to open up about mental health, says business executive who struggled with depression and anxiety for two years

  • Law firm COO Brian Henderson hid symptoms of mental illness from his family and friends for months
  • He finally told his doctor and was soon on the path to recovery. Now he is on a mission to help others who find themselves in the same boat
Angela Baura

When Brian Henderson took to social media in October to talk about his hard-won battle with mental illness, he was met with an outpouring of support from friends and colleagues across the globe. Responding to his LinkedIn post, which came with the hashtag #thisisme, many thanked Henderson for shedding light on mental illness and encouraging sufferers to seek help.

Others – including those close to him – admitted they had no idea he had been ill for two years.

As chief operating officer of a global law firm in Hong Kong for more than eight years, Henderson had maintained a healthy and balanced lifestyle to offset the long hours and frequent travel that came with his demanding work schedule. A competitive outrigger canoeist and yoga enthusiast, the 55-year-old ate healthily and drank little alcohol. He had a network of family, friends and colleagues. For pleasure, he played the guitar.
But a series of events began to unfold that would take a toll on his mental health. In 2018, Henderson’s partner suffered a life-threatening asthma attack that radically altered her sporty lifestyle and the couple’s retirement plan to travel.
Henderson with his outrigger canoeing team in Hong Kong. Photo: courtesy of Brian Henderson
Soon afterwards, his law firm launched a restructuring that caused widespread anxiety among staff. Then his outrigger canoeing team’s equipment was smashed during Typhoon Mangkhut. Social unrest in Hong Kong grew, and his firm’s global chair died unexpectedly. The Covid-19 pandemic came next, which exacerbated Henderson’s fears for his partner’s health.

“Any one of these events would be considered highly stressful, but the succession of them in my case resulted in my mental illness,” says Henderson. “I had no personal experience with mental illness, so was not familiar with the symptoms. It tends to creep up on you over time, making it hard to know at what point you have become ill, as opposed to just going through a rough patch.”

Try yoga, meditation to help ease mental health woes

Known for being even-tempered, Henderson began to feel increasingly irritable and emotional. Plagued by chronic insomnia and debilitating digestive problems, he found it difficult to prioritise and focus. He lost interest in the activities that once gave him joy and gradually withdrew from those closest to him.

He shared his struggle with a few people at the office, but they did not understand and were not trained to help. “So I just tried to hide it from almost everyone, including my partner, my family and friends. I felt very lonely.”
His road to recovery began when, in January of this year, he finally shared his challenges with his doctor. She referred him to a psychologist, who diagnosed depression, anxiety, insomnia and anorexia, and to a gastroenterologist, who recommended surgery to remove multiple cysts from his stomach and intestines.
Henderson with his partner Mary, and dog Willow. Photo: courtesy of Brian Henderson

She prescribed a low-dose antidepressant to help him sleep, and a psychologist coached him through a cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) programme.

While he started feeling better, he decided he needed to leave work and had the financial means to do so. He took up meditation, and started a journal, recording his emotions, small things he was grateful for, positive experiences and acts of kindness.

He also did some still-life drawing – a passion from childhood – and started to learn Cantonese.

Yoga practices to ease coronavirus fears: breathing and meditation

“While I still didn’t speak about my illness, I reconnected with friends and my wider network. After a few more months, I began to feel like my old self again – energised, focused, enjoying life, looking more relaxed and years younger,” he says.


Research indicates Henderson is not alone in his struggle with mental illness, particularly during the pandemic. In a survey of 11,000 people this year, the University of Hong Kong’s Department of Psychiatry found that 70 per cent of Hongkongers were moderately or highly depressed as a result of the anti-government protests, Covid-19, personal stressors and uncertainty about the future.

Studies by mental health charity Mind HK show that 55 per cent of Hongkongers experienced a decline in their mental health during the third wave of Covid from July to September, compared to 43 per cent during January to May. Thirty-seven per cent described their mental health as poor or very poor. And a recent study by City Mental Health Alliance HK found 27 per cent of employees in Hong Kong were experiencing mental health problems.

My experience tells me it is better to confide in someone early if you feel you are struggling. Getting professional help early is essential to a good recovery
Brian Henderson

While mental health concerns can affect anyone, men are much less likely than women to seek support for their mental health, and also much less likely to disclose a mental health problem to family or friends, notes Teresa Chan, Mind HK’s clinical adviser.

“This may have a lot to do with the stigma that is attached to mental health, but men are also faced with the additional pressures of societal expectations about what it means to be masculine, and the issues that arise from feeling that they have to conform to gender stereotypes.

“For example, boys are often taught from a young age that they have to be strong, dominant, self-reliant and in control of their emotions, but what this means … is that males often grow up to be much more reluctant to admit that they are struggling,” Chan says.

Protests, coronavirus playing havoc with mental health in Hong Kong

Henderson is now on a mission to inspire positive change. In September, he founded Whole Business Wellness with the aim of helping transform the wellness and performance of people and organisations.


The company will use concrete data to generate insights and actions to take to improve individual and organisational wellness and, consequently, individual and organisational performance.

“Mental illness is proven to cost businesses a significant percentage of their profits each year through presenteeism [showing up at work unwell and not being productive, despite staying for long hours], absenteeism, staff turnover, medical insurance costs and more,” Henderson says.

Henderson and Mary, with their Whole Business Wellness partners Neelam Harjani (second from right) and Kate Okransinski. Photo: courtesy of Brian Henderson

Henderson hopes people will start to see mental illness in the same way they see any other form of illness. This will help encourage sufferers to seek timely support.


“My experience tells me it is better to confide in someone early if you feel you are struggling. Getting professional help early is essential to a good recovery,” he says.

Meditation to restore balance, energy

Meditation aims to reconnect and rebalance mind, body and soul through a process of mindfulness that usually involves focusing on breathing, identifying where any tension or imbalance can be felt in the body, and then using visualisation, and integrated breathing and movement, to set an intention that will restore balance and energy flows.

Neelam Harjani is founder of Inspire Yoga and developed the mindfulness and movement course for Henderson. Photo: Jonathan Wong

Henderson’s daily meditation practice draws on his lessons from the “Transform Stress to Success Online Course” – a nine-week movement and mindfulness course developed by Neelam Harjani of Hong Kong’s Inspire Yoga.

It begins with breath work to offer immediate access to restorative energy. Movement follows, to help participants understand the impact of letting go of restlessness to prepare the body and mind to sit still and savour the silence of meditation.

Drawing on neuroscience, the programme is designed to empower self-practice of being aware of what you need rather than following an instructor’s set sequence.

“I personally use a combination of breathing, mindfulness, intention, visualisation and yoga to achieve balance at the start of each day. My practice varies depending how I am feeling day to day,” Henderson says. “It’s not about following exactly the same routine every day, because every day is different and what we need to restore balance varies accordingly.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Why men need to open up