Belfast Telegraph

Campaigner launches mental health crusade to battle stigma around illness

By Jonathan Bell

A Northern Ireland man has launched a year-long campaign to combat the stigma around mental health illness.

Alan McDowell is aiming to raise the profiles of two mental health charities close to his heart - PIPS and Cause - as well as money for the organisations through a series of link-ups with companies and fundraisers throughout the year. He is also encouraging people to open up and seek help.

The 56-year-old has battled mental health problems most of his life since his days at school. He and his wife divorced although now they are both the best of friends, he lost a job and money which brought it all to the fore for him.

Suffering from chronic anxiety and depression he was unable to continue his work as a sales manager, a job he loved, for a major horticultural firm. He said he was very socialable but lost all confidence in himself and was totally unable to hold a conversation on the phone.

For around six years he was in and out of hospital to receive treatment.

"I was in a really dark place," he told the Belfast Telegraph, "I had no energy - I couldn't even do the dishes - no enthusiasm to do anything. I was completely debilitated both physically and mentally. I just lay on the couch.

To laugh and to smile is worth a fortune to me.

"Those closest to me couldn’t reach me and I couldn’t reach them. I was alone with my frightening thoughts. This was a horrendous time for my then wife and late elderly parents. When I wasn’t in hospital, it was left for them to care for me. It was an incredibly frightening and worrying time for them.

"But now I've never been stronger and I believe that's because of my experience of acute mental health. I had goals of a big house and being a millionaire, now waking up and just feeling good is what makes me happy - everything after that is a bonus. To laugh and to smile is worth a fortune to me."

The Banbridge man has organised for companies to link up with his chosen charities for support through the year. He is organising fundraising events through the year and will be helping to run a men's shed in Portadown to help support others going through what he had experienced.

"I want to inspire young people," he added, "and help them realise their own talent and skills. I want them to realise they have a worth and how they can bring their skills to the forefront.

"And for me the more I support someone, the stronger I become. Given the experience of giving helps with my recovery."

Alan now work as a volunteer employee at Coleman's Garden Centre in Templepatrick where he launched his campaign. He said the position allows him to come and go as well as help rebuild his shattered confidence.

There is light at the end of the tunnel.

In a heartfelt presentation he gave his own experience of his mental health condition and talked of those who have to care with someone with a mental illness.

He praised the support of his employers, those health care professionals who supported him and his family for their dedication in helping him see the light.

"There is light at the end of the tunnel," is Alan's motto.

"Thankfully I am recovering well am so grateful to have the health to participate in this project," he said.

"But often the focus is on those with the mental health and it can and does have a big impact on those who care. They can often be left behind."

"People think you are some nutter and maybe can't feel like they can approach you or how to talk to you. But we need to open up and talk about it. Particularly men. They feel they can't talk about mental health problems as they may feel weak. But we really need to reach out to them and the young. There is so much expectations on people today."

Alan has chosen to support PIPS and Cause. While they provide help and support to thousands across Northern Ireland, Alan believes that number is the "tip of the iceberg" and many more could be in need of help but feel they can't open up because of the stigma that still surrounds the conditions.

"They are at the coalface," added Alan, "the work they do is tremendous and they need the support to keep that important work going."

To support Alan in his campaign, and for the latest on his fundraising events visit www.just-giving.com/fundraising/Alan-McDowell2 or www.just-giving.com/pipsspireland.

PIPS can be contacted on 0800 088 6042 or at www.pipscharity.com and Cause can be contacted on 0845 603 0291 or at www.cause.org.uk.

Belfast Telegraph Digital

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