Dan’s story — World Suicide Prevention Day 2021

Pre-read warning: In this blog Dan Arnold describes, in detail, some of his real life battles with his mental health and some of the content may be upsetting to read. If you or anyone you know are affected by this, there are organisations that offer help and support, please visit: https://www.southernhealth.nhs.uk/help-crisis

More than 700,000 people die by suicide every year across the Globe.

Friday 10 September 2021 is World Suicide Prevention Day and Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust is raising awareness of vulnerable groups including bereaved families, new mothers, men and healthcare workers who at a higher risk of experiencing suicidal thoughts.

Daniel Arnold, a veteran of the Armed Forces, has shared his very honest account of his own battle with his mental health in the hope to support others who may be suffering in silence.

“I left school and joined the military when I was 17. I served in many countries around the world as an Infantry soldier including Afghanistan and Iraq.

My journey started in 2010. I realised that I had a real issues with my mental health when the intrusive thoughts became too much and I began to have an overwhelming urge to self-harm.

Although this is where my story started, it took me forever to get the help I really needed.

Being in the military, in a hyper masculine environment, I wasn’t ready to accept that I possibly had serious issues with my mental health.

I just brushed it off as a blip and was very resistant to any support or intervention from the community mental health teams; I just went in and told them what they wanted to hear. That didn’t go well for me and my mental health naturally began to deteriorate. I began dealing with my intrusive thoughts in other ways, such as self-medicating with a range of substances, and this continued for about three years. I guess I believed that if I was out of it, I didn’t have to listen to those voices in my head and I didn’t have to deal with life. That led to some awful things, I ostracised my family, friends and I had multiple run-ins with the law because I was struggling so much.

My turn around point was when I hit rock bottom, I thought to myself ‘only a couple of years ago you were a leader of men in combat operations, people looked up to you, were inspired by you and now you are stood here totally out of it, more than with it.’ I decided to change at that point and that’s when I went on a journey of discovery to get the support I needed.

It started with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT); it took about five attempts to complete the whole course as I just kept disengaging when it got difficult. I suffer with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). What I really struggled with at first was when I was deployed in Afghanistan I was part of a patrol where we experienced these traumatic events, so to be the first one to be struggling, I felt weak like I was less than the other guys. I also learned that my trauma went a lot deeper than my experiences in the military.

In fact, I realised there were several adverse childhood experiences that contributed to the way I was feeling. It wasn’t until I started educating myself that I learned we all have a stress cup and the more you fill that stress cup, the less you are able to hold; I believe the things I experienced in Afghanistan were what caused my cup to over-run.

One thing that still shocks me is that we never lost anyone during the war in my unit but, in the wider army, throughout the Afghanistan conflict I lost three friends. However, to date, the number of friends I have lost through suicide is 10. This has hugely resonated with me as I really believe that at some point in my life that could have been me, if I had not had the right intervention and support.

I just felt so lonely, like I was on an island, that no one got me or understood me, that truly no one could relate to what I was going through. The things I have experienced have been so detrimental and traumatic to my past and I am very open to the fact that, although I have a history of self-harm, I have never reached the point where I have contemplated self-harming to end my life. I have, however, reached those points of complete despair where I have gone to bed at night thinking ‘do you know what? It might just be easier if I don’t wake up tomorrow.’ It’s that kind of suicidal ideation that feels so real and is so scary.

Although I still struggle with my mental health on a daily basis, I now use my experiences to help others, especially armed forces veterans and personnel still serving in the military.

Supporting and engaging with this very hyper masculine demographic, promoting the fact that anyone can experience mental health issues and suicidal thoughts regardless of their background or their stature.

I also use my own experience as a service user to help positively impact healthcare models in the NHS and encourage others to use their lived experience as their super power; to help educate people for the better and provide support to individuals needing recovery. I also help to educate spouses and family members of veterans, offering them guidance and support to help them deal with a loved one suffering with PTSD.

Advice I would give anyone who is experiencing suicidal thoughts or struggling with their mental health? Well, help starts with a conversation. It doesn’t have to be complicated, it could be just reaching out to a friend or a colleague saying ‘I am not ok at the moment and I think I need some help.’

Approach an organisation for support. There are so many different mediums for support out there these days and I know all too well that when you are really low, picking up a phone and speaking to someone just isn’t always easy. There is such an array of organisations, offering different types of support online including those you can text or e-mail for help.

Explore what help is available within your workplace, most companies have their own occupation health team who can offer free help and support and signpost you to organisations that can help.

Equally, if you are approached by someone needing support, again you don’t need to over complicate it — just listen. Listen to that person and it’s ok if you don’t have any answers right then and there. It is a huge privilege that this person has shared these feelings with you and they often just need someone to talk to without judgement. You could also agree to sit with that individual, take notes and then help them get the support they need after the conversation.

For anyone who is on a recovery journey, educate yourself. Becoming self-aware was huge for me. Learn about your condition, the NHS and organisations such as MIND have loads of resources and support to help you understand what you are going through.

Learn to be aware of any situations that may destabilising or triggering for you. For example, I know that going to a concert and standing in a crowd with lots of people will have a detrimental impact to my mental health. It’s the same with physical locations, a vibrant, busy pub is enough to set me off spiralling into a meltdown, especially with my PTSD. So I manage that situation by picking locations I will be comfortable in and I’ve learned to say no when I’ve been invited places where I know I will feel uncomfortable; you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.

Finally always be kind to yourself, accepting that I have a mental health problem has been a huge part of my recovery journey.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, please get the help and support you need. Click here to access information, key organisations, apps and training that offers a range of life saving information and resources.

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Southern Health

Southern Health provide community, specialist mental health and learning disability services for people across the south of England.