Trigger warning: armed combat
Tom Fox is a former Rifleman who has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He has now trained as a Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) instructor, is a plenary speaker for MHFA England on PTSD, and has set up his own business, Thoughtify Ltd, aiming to destigmatise mental ill health and encourage early diagnosis. Here is his story of living without diagnosis, beginning his path to recovery, and wanting to make a difference and help others.
When I joined the British Army in 1990, I served nine years with the elite Royal Green Jackets as an anti-tank and battlefield engineering specialist. I completed two tours of Northern Ireland and also served in Bosnia, Belize, Cyprus, Gibraltar and Canada.
There were several events throughout my military service that each had a deep effect on me, but it was a sign of weakness to talk about your feelings to your team members in the infantry. I just had to get on with it and didn’t speak about how I felt. On the one occasion I did try to speak with a medical officer I was just told that that I should keep my chin up and things would improve, and that was that!
Once I’d left the army in 2002, I took up a contract with the US Department of Defence working in Iraq providing close protection to US government officials. Iraq was at that time without doubt the most dangerous place in the world. I experienced an ambush and multiple attacks. We worked in teams of six, so if we were to get hit there was no hope of any cavalry arriving over the hill to come and save us. We were on our own and you just had to shoot your way out.
But the biggest problem for me was the fear of being blown up by an improvised explosive device while out on the road. That really played tricks with my mind.
Once I’d returned to the UK in 2006, I managed to carve out a career in financial services as a financial adviser with Lloyds and Barclays. Later I’d move into the IT sector as a business development manager. I focused all my energy on building a career, which was how I kept my mind distracted. I worked stupid hours and never took a break. But soon the cracks began to show.
Knowing what I know now, I realise that I went from a high stress, high activity environment in the army – where you must be on the ball all the time – into the financial services industry, another high stress, very target driven environment.
Once I’d eventually reached out for help, the psychiatrist said that my tendency to put pressure on myself to achieve all the time were just coping mechanisms, which were masking the underlying symptoms of PTSD. But when you get to your forties, those coping strategies just gradually collapse and you take a massive mental and physical hit.
I was ill for a long time and didn’t realise until it had gradually got much worse. I’d had a suspected heart attack, I’d suffered memory loss requiring me to see a brain specialist, I struggled to sleep, hyper-vigilant, experienced panic attacks – all the classic symptoms. I found I couldn’t stand up in front of people at work, I dreaded going on the train and tube as I expected a terrorist attack, I stopped socialising with my friends and gradually became a bit of a recluse. I tried to survive without help until I realised I couldn’t do it anymore.
Somehow in all that time not one medical professional asked me anything about my history and so my PTSD went undiagnosed.In 2015, I was referred to the military mental health charity, Combat Stress, by the NHS and ultimately diagnosed with complex PTSD. Having the diagnosis was incredibly hard to take, it knocked me for six. I seemed to get worse before I got better, but I found my way back. It’s different for different people. For me it was realising that going back into the target-focused corporate environment I was working in before could end up killing me.
But then I thought, "What on earth am I going to do now? I need money, I have a family to think about!"
I wanted to make the best out of my situation and try to raise awareness of mental health. I approached the military charity SSAFA for help funding the MHFA instructor course and was able to secure grants from SSAFA, the Royal British Legion and Help for Heroes.
The military charities were key to me getting Thoughtify Ltd off the ground. My SSAFA caseworker was pivotal for me as they approached the different charities on my behalf. Eventually I received around £3,000 which was just amazing.
I know how debilitating mental illness can be. It ruined my career and changed my life. The really annoying thing is, I know now that with a little bit of prior education about mental health, either I or a colleague at work could have easily spotted the signs that I was unwell, and I could have got the right support to manage my illness at a much earlier stage. If that had happened I would never have got to the point where going to work became an impossibility.
I think it’s important that businesses work to end the stigma associated with mental ill health and start to create a culture of openness and acceptance, and that is why I formed Thoughtify.
For more information on Tom's business, head to thoughtify.co.uk.
To find out how to become a Mental Health First Aid instructor, read more here.