Many of those that know James Smith, a 44 year-old father from Middlesbrough, would describe him as one of the most laid-back people you could meet. But after several challenging moments for him and his family, including an unexpected and life-changing operation, daily life became more difficult. Here James tells his story on how therapy and becoming a Mental Health First Aider gave him not just the tools to help himself, but the confidence to help others who might be struggling with mental ill health.

As we get older and circumstances change, life gets more stressful. We live in difficult times, and I have certainly been thrown a few challenges. My stepson, for instance, has Autism and Generalised Anxiety Disorder. As he developed through his early teens he found life unbearably hard and confusing. I don’t feel selfish or a bad person for saying “so did I”.

Just over 12 months ago to the day our lovely family unit started to go through a series of challenges that would turn our lives upside down. My step-daughter was diagnosed with Fibrous Dysplasia, a very rare bone condition. Although she has avoided brain surgery, she has still lives with constant pain and a lot of hospital appointments – all at a time when she is trying to prepare for her GCSEs. Exactly a week later our beloved family dog died. If you’ve ever had a dog that has been part of your family, you will recognise the grief and pain that we all felt at this loss.

Then on the 3rd July I went into hospital for what was meant to be a very straight forward operation, with a two-week recovery period. I didn’t go home again for another six and half weeks. The operation went very badly wrong. After waking up in ITU after ten hours of surgery and three extra surgical procedures, I developed sepsis and spent another week in ITU. I was so easy-going and laid back as a child, that I’d never had to spend a night in hospital and never had so much as a broken toe.

As I started to recover family and friends would often say – “this is going to affect you psychologically” and “this will hit you later”. To begin with I managed to focus on taking each day as it came and I appreciated and recognised every small bit of progress that I was making. But they were right. Once I stopped getting so many visitors (and gifts) it did hit me. I started to think – what just happened?! I was meant to go in for a simple procedure and I woke up after ten hours of major surgery full of tubes, covered in bandages and with a scar the size of a shark bite! I started to get flashbacks which weren’t great and I spent most my time going over events and trying to make sense of it all.

A friend of a friend, who works as a therapist, contacted me and persuaded me to meet for a coffee. I had started to avoid social situations so I was a bit hesitant. If I was in a room full of people I would start to get a sensory overload and struggle to focus. She offered to see me as a client to help me try and make sense of what I was going through. By this point I was aware that I needed to take some action and I very gratefully accepted.

About the same time, I returned to work on a part-time basis. About a week after I returned my employer sought nominations for people to attend the Mental Health First Aid Course. “I’ll have some of that” - I thought! I work in the community with offenders who quite often have mental health issues. I had previously worked as a Disability Employment Adviser and the satisfaction from seeing someone with mental health issues either move into work or stay in work is pretty immense! From a selfish point of view, I had the feeling that the course would also help me with my recovery and also help me be able to help my family – I wasn’t wrong.

I was slightly apprehensive. Would I be able to stay in a room full of people for 2 days without having some kind of meltdown? Within the first couple of hours my fears were allayed. This was a fascinating, interesting, life-affirming course that managed to challenge and educate at the same time. The session about the stress bucket had a massive impact on me. Hearing how traumatic and major events can blow your bucket apart struck a chord with me and made a lot of sense. I also emphasized and recognised similarities with the people in a video that we watched about PTSD. It was reassuring to hear how they had recovered.

One of the many things I took from the course was how important it is to talk, either to someone who is struggling or to talk about what you’re going through yourself. I had attended a couple of therapy sessions by this time. Had I engaged in these as well as I could? Probably not. I now found it a lot easier to open up and acknowledge that I had been through a major traumatic event that would affect anybody, and it’s ok to say I’m struggling.

I’m now able to accept that my mental health is never going to be perfect, there are going to be ups and downs. What I do have through therapy and attending the course is a set of tools and resources that I can use to help me make sense of what I may be experiencing and going through. I keep a journal to record my thoughts and feelings and it is also source of evidence of the progress that I’ve made. These tools and resources have helped me at home and with my family and I have also used it at work to help the clients that I come into contact with. I would feel confident going up to someone who I could sense was struggling and offering to go for chat – sometimes that’s all it takes.

Having MHFAiders in the workplace makes perfect sense. From an employer’s point of view, getting a handle on it will decrease absences and probably help increase productivity. We need to try and create an atmosphere where people are comfortable holding their hand up and saying, “I’m struggling, can I speak to someone?”. This is an incredibly brave thing to do and should be seen as a sign of strength, not weakness. If you were feeling ill for a week or two you would go to see a doctor. Mental health is part of your overall well-being and needs to be addressed if it isn’t great. What have you got to lose?

James attended the Workplace MHFA Two Day course. You can find more information on the course here.

You can also sign our petition to make Mental Health First Aid compulsory for all organisations.