He talks to Lorraine Wylie about beating depression and finding happiness
There’s an old adage that says, ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me’.
However, words can often be every bit as painful as a physical wound.
Sam Bright (34) was just 11-years-old when he discovered the psychological harm language can inflict.
Born with a medical condition known as ‘orofacial cleft’ (a birth defect that, in Sam’s case affects both the lip and palate), he endured a daily onslaught of verbal abuse when his looks made him the target of bullies.
The cruel taunts destroyed his confidence and left his self-esteem in tatters.
Two decades later, Sam, who grew up in Belfast, continues to experience the occasional insult or derogatory comment, but he’s no longer that scared 11-year-old, terrified of walking down a school corridor.
Now married with an eight-year-old daughter and working as an Activity Therapist in a care home, Sam has found happiness.
Unfortunately, mental health illness, an umbrella term for a variety of conditions including depression, continues to affect as many as one in four adults and a staggering 45,0000 children in Northern Ireland alone.
Everyone affected by mental health issues will have a different journey but, perhaps Sam’s story can offer hope that life can and does get better.
“Growing up in West Belfast, I had a very happy childhood,” he says. “I loved primary school and had lots of friends.
“My looks were never an issue, nobody treated me any differently and I had no reason to think things would ever change. I was just like any other kid.
“By the time I turned 11, I was really looking forward to ‘big boys’ school’ and couldn’t wait to get my uniform, travel on the bus by myself and experience a little independence.
“It was a big milestone for me, and I was super excited.”
However, Sam’s happiness at starting secondary school was short-lived, as almost immediately, he became the target for bullies.
“From the moment I stepped through the door, I knew that it wasn’t going to be the fun experience I’d been anticipating,” he says.
“My facial issues made me stand out like a sore thumb and I immediately attracted the wrong sort of attention. The name calling and jeers were horrible and relentless.
“There was no let-up and nowhere to hide. Having to change classes, only made me more exposed.
“Those corridors seemed endless and around every corner, there was always someone waiting to point the finger or throw some cruel remark.
“I remember thinking, how am I ever going to get through the day?”
Looking back now, Sam realises that the emotional turmoil he suffered as a result of the relentless bullying, resulted in him developing depression.
“I felt dreadful,” he recalls. “Winston Churchill once described depression as his ‘Black Dog’, well that dog plagued me, followed me everywhere, constantly nipping at my heels.
“Sunday nights were always the worst. I was so stressed about going to school on Monday that, I pleaded with my mum not to send me.
“Mum was fiercely protective and would have done anything to help me but, although she tried, she couldn’t stop the bullying.”
As his time at school went on, Sam’s depression got worse.
“I felt trapped in a dark place where everyday seemed like a year and there was no way out,” he says.
“At that particular time, it was so painful that if someone had told me I could press a button and disappear, I would have done it.
“It’s such a joy to watch my daughter skipping happily into school, but at the same time, it makes me realise just how much I missed.
“I have no memories of learning or doing any of the fun things that others take for granted. For me school days are full of bad memories. Even today, when I drive past the site, I get that same stomach-churning dread I experienced throughout my secondary education.”
Fortunately, Sam had a close and supportive family who made him feel loved and accepted. And even at school, he found a little oasis of comfort.
“One of my teachers, a Miss Lewis, was a real godsend. Her kindness and understanding helped me through some of the darkest times.”
At 16, an invitation to a local church event, set Sam on the road to recovery.
“I was invited to visit a local church and I thought why not? It turned out to be the best thing I could have done - it literally saved my life.
“The people there were so friendly, there was no judgement and I basked in the kindness shown to me.
“Until then, I’d felt the loneliest person on the planet but, for the first time, I felt included, an integral part of the church family.”
Before long Sam’s confidence began to grow.
“I even joined the choir,” he laughs. “It’s incredible. To think I went from a lad who was so anxious and self-conscious that I could barely speak, to standing up, singing in front of hundreds of people.
“My personality was given space to develop, and I realised I’m quite a social person, I actually love being around people, helping out if I can.”
As well as friendship, Sam went on to find love among his church group.
“My wife Christine is an amazing woman,” he says. “I liked her from the moment we met and, after sending her a friend request on Facebook, I asked her out.
“She’s 17 years older than me, but she describes me as an ‘old soul’. We had so much in common that age was irrelevant. It didn’t take me long to realise she was the woman for me and so I proposed.
“Thankfully she said yes, and we were married on December 6, 2011.”
Sam settled down to enjoy married life, but, five years later, the death of his dad and sister sent him spiralling back into depression.
“My dad died in 2016, and then my sister was diagnosed with a brain tumour, and she too passed away,” he recalls. “The shock and pain of losing both of them within the space of a year was overwhelming.
“For a long time, I felt numb. It was as though I was disconnected from the world around me. At the time, I didn’t recognise it as depression, but now looking back the feelings were the same as they had been when I was at school.
“In the end, I went to see my GP.”
His doctor prescribed medication, but while antidepressants can be a life saver for many people, Sam didn’t think they were right for him.
“I remember thinking, these tablets won’t change my situation. I was mourning the loss of my family and I knew it would take its course, but I also needed to find a way to cope with my emotions.
“I love music and I found that walking while listening to my favourite songs was very therapeutic. But more than anything else, the thing that helped most was talking.
“I’m very fortunate that my wife and family are great believers in letting feelings out. It’s ok to feel what you feel.
“Previous generations thought that men had to be emotionally strong, and crying was a sign of weakness. Today, we know that a good cry helps alleviate stress. You could say its medicine for the soul.”
Has Sam any advice for anyone struggling with mental health issues?
“Yes. Don’t keep your feelings hidden. Talk to someone, tell them what’s going on. Even writing it down can get it out of your system. People are ready and willing to help, if you give them a chance.
“Winston Churchill gave good advice when he said, ‘When you’re going through hell, keep going’.
“What he means is, don’t make your bed there, it’s only temporary, keep pushing through. I think that’s worth remembering.”
*If you, or someone you know would like help and support with a mental health issue, the charity Aware NI operates a support line, Mon - Fri 11am - 3pm. Please call 07548530931 or 07340488254. You can also email: firstname.lastname@example.org and a member of the team will get back to you. The Samaritans organisation offers a 24hr helpline which you can call for free on 116 123.