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'I wanted to sleep and never wake up - only the thought of my children stopped me'

John Crumley has endured a 30-year battle with depression that almost claimed his life. The grandfather from Twinbrook in west Belfast turned to drink as he struggled to come to terms with the crushing loss of his first child.

As his depression spiralled out of control, John - now 55 - spent eight years as a virtual prisoner in his own home and he even came close to ending his own life.

But thanks to help from a sympathetic doctor and support from Belfast-based mental health charity, Niamh (Northern Ireland Association for Mental Health), he is now firmly on the road to recovery.

"I honestly believe that I wouldn't be here today without their help," he says.

John was just 20-years-old when his son, also called John, died four days after he was born.

His arrival into the world was traumatic - he was born more than six weeks early by emergency caesarean section after John's wife, Josie, developed dangerously high blood pressure.

"Josie and I fell in love and got married when we were 19," recalls John. "Basically, we were childhood sweethearts.

"Everything was going well, I had a very good job with the Ambulance Service that had very good prospects.

"Josie got pregnant and everything was good, but then she developed pre-eclampsia and had to have an emergency section six and a half weeks premature.

"She was really ill and the baby was taken to the premature nursery, as it was called in those days.

"He was in an incubator, he was so ill with respiratory problems and I was going between them trying to be with both of them.

"I had been there night and day when one of the doctors told me nothing was going to happen, so to go home and get some rest.

"I went home for a few hours sleep and in those days I didn't have a phone, when a friend came round and told me the hospital had been in touch to tell me to get back quickly.

"When I got there, they told me the child had passed away half an hour before.

"I had to make a decision about what to tell Josie, she was so ill, whether she would hold the baby and I decided that she should. We got him all dressed and brought her up to see him.

"I didn't know if I was doing the right thing, although Josie tells me now she is glad that she got to hold him."

As Josie recovered in hospital, John was left to make the funeral arrangements and bury their son without his wife by his side.

"It was so hard, but the worst part was not being there when he passed," he says.

"I felt so many different emotions, but I was really angry."

In those days, very little support was offered to grieving parents and John and Josie were left by themselves to come to terms with their devastating loss and the young couple tried to get on with their lives.

Josie fell pregnant again quickly and almost exactly a year after the birth of John, she delivered healthy twin girls, Joanne and Josephine, followed by Maria the following year and John five years later.

Meanwhile, John continued working for the Ambulance Service - but as time went on, he found it harder to cope with his emotions.

"I worked in the stores, making sure the ambulances were stocked up, but it was during the height of the Troubles and as I was trained in first aid, I would go out on calls when they were short-staffed," he explains. "Some of the things I saw were horrendous, with the bombings and shootings, but the thing that caused a problem happened one day when I opened up an ambulance and there was a baby lying in the back of it.

"It freaked me out and I took a panic attack."

As time went on, the panic attacks became a more frequent occurrence.

Gradually, John, who had only ever been a social drinker, found himself turning to alcohol more and more to drown out his overwhelming grief. He was eventually forced to resign from his job as the fear of coming face-to-face with a gravely ill baby became too much to bear.

As the years passed, his weight soared from 12 to 18 stones and he developed type two diabetes as a result.

He also became a recluse - only leaving his home to attend medical appointments for a period of eight years between 1994 and 2002.

Sadly, John's experience with poor mental health - and the terrible toll on his health - is not unique.

According to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, more than three quarters of the people who took their own life in 2014 were men.

John himself became dangerously close to becoming a statistic as health professionals continually overlooked the source of his health problems. "I was telling them about the panic attacks and they were treating me for alcoholism instead of treating me for the real problem," he says.

"I knew it all stemmed from the death of the baby, which was really catastrophic for me and my wife, but no one dealt with that.

"There was one time I was discharged from the hospital in the middle of the night and I had no money with me.

"I was walking home and at that moment, I wanted to lie down and go to sleep and never wake up, but the thought of my children and grandchildren stopped me."

It was only when John finally encountered a doctor who recognised the significance of his loss that he finally turned a corner.

He was prescribed antidepressants and was also referred to a Beacon centre, which is run by mental health charity, Niamh, close to his home.

Staff from the charity visited him at home to assess him and put together a suitable treatment package.

Five years on, he regards the centre as a lifeline: "They're brilliant.

"They do things like confidence-building classes, there are walking groups, an allotment, relaxation classes, alternative therapies.

"If you need help, the centre is there for you and what you say there stays there.

"The centre is in my community, but it's so confidential that I didn't know anything about the services until I was referred there.

"I have done so many courses at the centre and have so many certificates on my wall now that I look like I'm a professor.

"I was in and out of hospital before, my longest stay was 13 weeks, but I haven't been admitted to hospital since I started attending the centre.

"I was a type two diabetic, but I've managed to lose the weight and reversed the damage, my blood sugar levels are back to normal and I'm off the medication.

"My liver is back to normal, I still enjoy a drink, but I know it is something I do socially and not to help me block out my feelings.

"I feel so good now that I want to help other people and I hope that by speaking out I can show others that it is possible to get better."

John is speaking out about his own crippling depression and anxiety to coincide with Men's Health Week 2016.

He hopes that by opening up about his own struggles that he will stop others suffering decades of ill health.

"For years, I wasn't able to talk about the baby," he points out.

He has joined forces with (Niamh), which runs the Beacon centres, to urge men across Northern Ireland who are dealing with poor mental health to ensure they get the help they need.

"I can't say for certain, but if I got the proper help at the time, I would probably still be working for the Ambulance Service," adds John.

Meanwhile, Geoff Scott from Niamh says: "Often men feel they have to be strong enough to struggle on with things on their own and are afraid of being seen as weak if they admit they need help or support.

"Nothing could be further from the truth.

"For any man, having the wisdom to know when you need assistance with something is actually a sign of great strength and self-insight.

"We all face many big life events and transitions that put pressure on us.

"If not processed in the right way, or neglected, that pressure can turn into stress, which is so detrimental for someone's mental health."

He points out most men wouldn't think twice about seeking out expert advice when trying to get fit, so they should not put off taking steps to protect their mental health.

He continues: "I would urge men to develop a mental fitness plan for themselves in the same way they might have a physical fitness routine.

"Take time to get the knowledge about mental health and introduce into your life routines, techniques and a way of being that helps you deal with stress and share the load with other people, whilst also being a good mate to other men in your life who may need a bit of support from time to time."

Now, John says he is finally able to enjoy his family: "Probably the most important thing to me out of all of this is the fact that I can spend time with and enjoy my grandchildren.

"After everything I've been through, family is very, very important.

"I love my family and they love me, we're very, very close.

"We have our arguments like all families do, we have ups and downs, but the grandchildren are just so special.

"I know every grandparent is supposed to say it, but I honestly believe my grandchildren are the best in the world.

"I can finally feel proud of what I have achieved and I know it wouldn't have been possible without Beacon."

  • For more details, contact NIAMH, 80 University St, Belfast, BT7 1HE, tel: 028 9032 8474 or visit

All about Niamh

Niamh (the Northern Ireland Association for Mental Health) is the largest and longest established independent charity focusing on mental health and well-being services in Northern Ireland. Niamh is structured as a group consisting of three elements: Beacon, Carecall and Inspire.

• Beacon provides support services to people with experience of mental illness through supported housing, day support and advocacy services. Beacon is the largest division in the group.

• Carecall provides therapeutic support through employee assistance programmes, and specialist therapeutic services delivered in a wide variety of contexts.

• Inspire provides support for approximately 90 people with learning disabilities in four residential locations in Northern Ireland - Armagh, Antrim, Lisburn and Omagh.

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