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'I thought I was worthless and wanted to die, now miracles happen in my life every week and through my charity we save lives every day'

A successful businessman, Ray Cunningham had what seemed an enviable lifestyle - but he was battling serious mental health problems. He tells Stephanie Bell how his brother's tragic death inspired him to turn his own life around and help others

Making a difference: Ray Cunningham at the MYMY offices
Making a difference: Ray Cunningham at the MYMY offices

A man who tried to take his own life and also lost his brother to suicide is now helping thousands of people in Northern Ireland come back from the brink.

Ray Cunningham (35) runs MYMY, a mental health and wellbeing charity based in Newcastle, Co Down.

In the past eight years, thousands of men and women from across the province have found it to be a lifesaver.

Married to Tanya (33) with a new four-week-old baby girl Ophelia, Ray, from Castlewellan, describes his life now as wonderful.

However, for the first 25 years he says he lived with such self-loathing that most days he felt that he wanted to die.

His brother Laurence's death, at the age of 30 nine years ago, proved a turning point for Ray who sought counselling and turned his life around.

Since then he has been devoted to helping others struggling with mental health - in his current role with the charity he specialises in early intervention for people who are suicidal.

Ray's own illness started in early childhood and carried on into adulthood.

He kept it hidden even from close family. A successful businessman working in property, with a luxury apartment, a sports car and the best in designer clothes, he appeared to have it all. Yet no one could guess at the pain he carried deep inside.

"It was all a facade," he says now. "I bought and sold property and did really well and I had a penthouse apartment, a beautiful car and I only wore the best of clothes.

Ray Cunningham
Ray Cunningham

"When people realised how low I was during those years they just couldn't believe it because I seemed to be living the perfect life.

"But for 25 years I didn't want to be here. Most mornings I woke up loathing myself and wanted to blow the head off myself.

"I played soccer and hurling in Castlewellan and even though at times I was surrounded by 14 other people, I still felt extremely alone.

"I had a good family network but I felt isolated and these feelings were with me all through my childhood and into my 20s."

Ray knows now from working with people who have mental health problems that trauma in childhood is often at the root of mental illness.

For him, his father's alcoholism played a significant role. His father, who passed away four years ago from a heart attack, did stop drinking when Ray was 11 but by then, says Ray, the damage had been done.

He describes his father as very loving and has great admiration for him, but his alcoholism did leave a mark on his son.

Ray says: "The instability of my father's alcoholism created the feelings of insecurity within me. My father loved me as much as any father loves their child and at no point do I blame him for how my life unfolded, because he too was also suffering and that is how trauma works, it's passed on.

"Trauma is an intergenerational thing and the trauma my father endured as a child was passed onto me and it is my responsibility now to ensure I pass a little less onto my own child.

Tragic loss: Ray Cunningham with his late brother Laurence (left)
Tragic loss: Ray Cunningham with his late brother Laurence (left)

"At the root of nearly every single mental health illness you will find childhood trauma.

"With our charity we see a huge number of people who are still struggling because of the Troubles and issues it has caused, and even though we no longer have conflict, the suffering has been passed down through the generations."

When Ray was 25 the property market crashed and he lost everything.

He had to give up all the trappings of wealth and go back home penniless to his parents.

He was at such a low ebb that he did attempt to take his own life and is thankful today that he didn't succeed.

He says: "I had my home repossessed and lost my car and I was a young egotistical boy who had to go back home to my parents with my tail between my legs.

"Things just spiralled from there and I had been trying to fill an inner void which I couldn't fill. I attempted to take my own life and thankfully wasn't successful.

"I felt I was alone. My parents and two sisters were amazing but I didn't have the skills to talk about how I was feeling and they thought everything was fine but secretly I was crumbling."

It was shortly after this that his family got a horrifying phone call to say that his brother Laurence (30), who was working in Nigeria, had taken his own life.

Helping people: Ray with MYMY services co-ordinator Jill Truesdale and fundraising manager Damien Russell
Helping people: Ray with MYMY services co-ordinator Jill Truesdale and fundraising manager Damien Russell

Laurence had phoned Ray the day before his death, a call which his brother only realised later was a cry for help.

The fact that he did not help him haunted Ray and made him again want to take his own life.

He says: "He rang me and asked me for help and I turned my back on him.

"I've had to deal with that and learn to forgive myself for the decision I made when my brother needed me the most.

"It was horrendous, the worst thing you could imagine. A death of that sort leaves everyone asking why and what could they have done to help.

"I thought I had two options. I could take my own life and be successful this time or, seeing the devastation my brother's death caused in my family, I could finally address how I felt about myself.

"Thankfully I made the right decision."

Ray found a psychotherapist in Dungannon who he visited weekly for a year and a half, which he describes as "the most amazing experience I have ever been through".

From believing all his life that he was a bad person, the therapist showed him why he felt the way he did.

Ray emerged as a new man, confident for the first time in his life - and his first thought was for others struggling as he had.

He says: "I just thought 'who else out there could benefit from this knowledge' and I reached out to a friend. We met at the Malone Lodge Hotel and sat around the table talking about our feelings.

"It became three of us and then very quickly we had 10 men meeting weekly. The change in our lives just from talking about how we felt was out of this world."

Ray started another weekly meeting, called The Book Club, in Castlewellan, and with the help of his sister Roseleen and two friends, Maureen and Sharon, they arranged a public event at which 30 people turned up.

The charity grew rapidly from then with people contacting them from all over Northern Ireland asking for support.

They soon had a counsellor on board who very quickly went from offering therapy for three people a month to three a week and then three a day.

Now the charity has nine full and part-time counsellors offering around 50 sessions a week.

MYMY stands for Mind Your Mate and Yourself and, as well as counsellors, it has a fundraising manager, services coordinator and a small army of volunteers.

It holds weekly cycling groups for men and women in Castlewellan Forest Park, self-care courses and for the past five years has held a Christmas dinner for people who are alone.

Volunteers drive to all parts of the province to bring lonely people to the event in Castlewellan where around 100 people enjoy Christmas dinner together and receive a gift.

The charity has become a crucial service in the community.

Ray says: "We have a waiting list for counselling for the first time in the charity's history.

"If we had the money we would increase the counsellors' hours but we don't get any government money and fundraising is ongoing as it takes about £10,000 a month to run."

That funding was recently boosted by £8,000 during a special crowdfunding night held by the Community Foundation in Belfast.

The foundation is a grant maker, giving money to community and voluntary sector groups across Northern Ireland. It also tries to encourage generosity which is why it held the crowdfunding event.

From struggling for most of his adult life Ray, who runs his own gallery business, Painted Earth, with his wife, who is a jewellery designer, says he is now living his dream.

He says: "Every day when I used to wake up I thought I was a worthless individual. Now miracles happen in my life every week. I see the world as an amazing place and my child was born into an amazing world.

"I've had to work on my own pain and issues and it does involve a lot of self care every day.

"There is no more stressful environment to work in than dealing with people every day who are on the edge and yes, it can be upsetting, but the way I look at it is this is our world and it is up to each and every one of us to do something to help others.

"At MYMY we absolutely save lives on a daily basis. Part of what I do is intervention calls to people who are feeling suicidal. I settle them and talk to them about my experience and how we can help them to cope.

"In a 10-day period recently I visited 14 people. I can help them to change and that's what gets me out of bed in the morning now. Life is wonderful."

For more information about the charity visit www.mymy.org.uk or for details on the work of the Community Foundation go to www.communityfoundationni.org or to donate www.justgiving.com/cfni

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