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The Northern Ireland mental health coach who survived bankruptcy and learned to walk across fire and broken glass

He worked for one of NI's biggest house builders and built up a property portfolio of 12 homes before the market collapsed. His experience led to him changing careers to help others under stress

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Ken Falconer

Ken Falconer

With wife Denise

With wife Denise

Ken Falconer

For a moment Ken Falconer thought about taking his own life. He was helping his son install a fitness machine in his garage when the idea entered his mind.

"I stood there for about 30 seconds," he confesses.

"And then I just went into a rage - where did this idea come from? Why is that thought there? Why am I even considering this?"

It was an experience that was to change his life.

At the time, he says, he had a thriving family and a well paid construction job, but after suffering serious losses and bankruptcy in the property crash of 2007 he found himself so utterly consumed with guilt that he poured himself into his work.

After experiencing his own problems with mental health, Ken sought the help he needed and has gone on to forge his own career as a mental health specialist and business coach.

Later this month, he will be hosting famous hypnotherapist Bob Burns, who visits Northern Ireland for the first time to deliver a two-day workshop to local therapists and healers on his world-renowned Swan Protocol which enables practitioners to speak to the subconscious mind.

While Ken trained in hypnotherapy after realising how valuable it had been in treating his own mental health issues, he admits he has been fascinated with the practice since his school days, hypnotising his friend in a physics lesson at Larne Grammar School.

"We swung a weight with a bit of string in front of my friend and his eyes glazed over. We asked him to do something and then we had to tackle him to the ground because he was going to clean the blackboard!

"That gave me an interest in hypnotism, but it made me realise that the problems we have are not conscious problems. If you were able to get rid of your fears and phobias by saying 'I don't want it anymore', wouldn't we do it? But we can't. So therefore it's not a conscious problem, it's a subconscious problem."

His current career is a far cry from the construction industry where he has spent almost his entire working life.

A father of four boys - Robert, Philip, Andrew and David - Ken is married to classroom assistant Denise (55) and started his career as a teenager working every summer for his dad Jim at his business in Kilwaughter, outside Larne, where he supplied the building industry with concrete products.

With wife Denise

Ken worked for his dad for around 10 years, then went on to work with several small builders before joining Hagan Homes, Northern Ireland's biggest private housing builder. After a few other roles elsewhere, he returned to Hagan Homes where he rose to become director of construction, and is proud of his record of building award-winning homes.

"I was renowned for getting the head down and getting it done," he says.

At the time, the housing market in Northern Ireland was booming and like many others, Ken decided to invest, buying 11 or 12 properties over several years.

"I bought one house for £60,000 in Craigavon and by the time I got my keys it was already worth £78,000 - that was within the 14 weeks of buying the house and getting the keys," he says.

"The market expanded far too quickly and mortgages were very easy to get. As soon as I got a house I remortgaged it and bought another house. I was using the capital from one property to increase my property portfolio."

He admits he never intended to buy so many in the first place.

"I only ever started off with four in my head - one for each boy - and the whole idea was that once they got married that would be part of their wedding present," he says.

"That was the original idea. And then the market collapsed in 2008. I remember in those days there were taxi drivers who had property portfolios of 10 or 12 houses. There were people on the dole buying houses. Under self-certification, as long as you could prove that the rent covered the mortgage they were giving everybody money, and a lot of people weren't taking responsibility for what they had done.

"I had a fantastic job, a fantastic family, great kids and then the market collapsed and that is really where I went into my dark period. That is the start of what I do now. I didn't believe that I should have had success, I always had low confidence and low self-esteem, and when the downturn came in 2008, I took upon myself all the guilt and all the shame and went into bankruptcy.

"When the collapse came, everything I had worked for my whole life went away between 2008 and 2011. During that time I buried my head so deeply into the sand, it was unreal. I didn't speak to anybody, I took the whole world on my shoulders - it was all my fault.

"I had a great job, but the salary was not enough to cover the deficit I had as I had remortgaged my properties to buy more. I went out every weekend, and during the week I worked long hours. I had high functioning anxiety. I didn't know what to do if I wasn't working. I didn't know what to do on days off, I felt lost. I felt a failure, stupid, not good enough. I was lost and lonely, yet I had my family around me. I was at work at 8am and wasn't finishing until about 10pm or 10.30pm."

Part of the guilt, he says, was because the properties were bought jointly with his wife Denise and he felt he had brought her down with him.

"I buried my head, I felt ashamed, embarrassed, guilty, like a bad husband and father - as if I was the only one this was happening to, and it was at that point that taking my own life seemed like a solution," Ken admits.

"This thought, when it came in, angered me - I was so angry."

After that brief anger rose up inside him, Ken says he slammed the garage door and sought help to get himself sorted out.

"It was just a brief moment … no one ever wants to commit suicide, but they just want the pain to go away. When you are starting to look at that as a solution, that is dangerous," he says.

In retrospect, Ken says, he was paying mortgage companies up to £400 to value the house and then they would approve it and loan the money.

"They were the experts but when the market collapsed, I had to take all the blame on my head," he says.

Part of the recovery process involved hypnotherapy - and that piqued an interest.

"I became a hypnotherapist, trained in hypnotherapy and opened up a part-time clinic and ran it for about six years before I left Hagan Homes. I wasn't putting the long hours in any more," he says.

"It was just one night when I came home at 10.15pm and Denise said to me 'You're home early tonight'. That is where my attitude had to change. I had to leave the well paid job and do my real passion which was to help others, so I became a business coach."

Ken spent thousands of pounds retraining. "My clinic clients are local people from Larne and the surrounding areas, mainly business owners, but I also work throughout the world with technology - if you have a webcam and internet I can work with you," he says.

"We are always asked to work stronger. We are going through a very difficult time - the whole world has never been as busy as it is now. The amount of stress in the workplace is unreal. The amount of expectation that businesses put on their staff is unreal.

"Everything has to happen immediately but we can't cope. And people who can't cope are going to have meltdowns, they are going to be off with stress-related issues. That is where I come in as a mental health therapist and emotional intelligence and wellbeing coach."

Ken says his management style in the construction industry laid the foundations to this approach. "I was coaching the guys on site and getting the best out of them. When they are doing a good job, let them know because you get more from your staff when they feel appreciated.

"There are a lot of coaches out there at the moment and what they coach about is making a decision and you will get a result which is correct. The problem is sometimes we don't make the decision and that is where I come in.

"The only thing which is stopping us is our belief system and our identity. These are things that go through our heads - I am not good enough, 95% of people are telling themselves I can't do that.

"A lot of businessmen have been very successful, but they are successful within their comfort zone and that is the kind of people I would work with.

"For them to go to the next level, they have to leave their comfort zone and their fears and that is why some people are afraid of success - because success means doing something they have never done before.

"That is what holds you back in this busy world - our self-doubt. A lot of people are happy in their wee bubble of protection, but they are not giving their full value back to society.

"My job is to get people to understand where they are right now and when you know where you are right now I can take you to where you want to be," he adds.

Ken has recently trained in fire walking and glass walking. "It's about encouraging somebody to step into something that they would never dream of doing. Fear is not real, but it's concentrated focus and you concentrate your focus on what you want and what you don't want," he says.

"With the fire walking, it's building up energy and going for it. The glass walk is still as focused, but it's a slower focus. If you feel a shard on your foot you just relocate your foot, and you don't land on your foot until you're sure - that's the kind of focus you need in business. If you change your thinking you are going to change your life."

Ken Falconer

Some of Ken's therapeutic clients have included people who have suffered Troubles-related PTSD.

"I've had clients who were the perpetrators and also clients whose fathers were the perpetrators. They were brought up in an environment of hatred," he says.

"I treat people with abandonment issues. My focus is to give awareness to people that change is possible, to make people aware of that anxiety. There is always a solution."

Ken is running a series of Emotional Wellbeing workshops in Larne, focusing on what people can do to change their programming and enjoy a more balanced life.

"If you can overcome your fear, you can do almost anything you put your mind to," he says.

"No-one is afraid of the dark - they are afraid of what might be in the dark. There's no-one who is afraid of relationships but they might be afraid of being hurt if they go into another relationship. That is where our fears are, these are the things that will hold us back.

"The workshops are to give them awareness, explain to them why they feel the way they do and what they can do to change that."

Ken says that after his own mental illness, he had to change his mindset to become what he wanted to be.

"I am happy, I am strong, I am helping other people. I gave up a job to do what I am doing now, to help people," he says.

If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article, contact the Samaritans on 084 5790 9090, or Lifeline 080 8808 8000

The Bob Burns Conference will take place on Saturday, February 29 and Sunday, March 1 at the Park Avenue Hotel, Belfast. For more information about Ken Falconer's work, visit www.kenfalconer.com

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