Mental health campaigners share personal struggles to inspire others and remove social stigma
PUBLISHED: 12:35 07 February 2018 | UPDATED: 12:41 07 February 2018
The time to talk is now.
That was the simple yet powerful message repeated time and again during last weekend’s Lowestoft Conference.
On Saturday, February 3, mental health experts, survivors and members of the public joined together at the inaugural mental health awareness event.
A survivor from the 7/7 London terror attacks, a former EDL leader and a former soldier with PTSD were among the keynote speakers who shared their stories and in doing so empowered others to share their own.
Dan Biddle is believed to be the most-injured survivor of the 7/7 London terror attacks.
His list of injuries is both long and unimaginable; including the loss of both legs, his left eye and his spleen.
He also has a 20p coin eternally embedded in his thigh bone from the loose change he was carrying at the time of the attack.
Since 2005, Mr Biddle has battled PTSD, bringing on bouts of depression and culminating in three attempts to take his own life.
He said: “Breaking down the stigma attached to mental health is crucial to help understanding.
“We are not abnormal because of the trauma we have gone through.”
Mr Biddle said one of the worst aspects of having a mental health condition is the isolation those suffering experience.
He said: “The hardest thing was admitting I have a problem.
“When I talk about my experiences of 7/7 somebody in the room feels like I do.”
The 38-year-old has seen the benefits opening up and sharing can have and credits his ability to battle PTSD with the constant support he receives from his wife Gemma.
Mr Biddle said: “I felt broken beyond repair.
“But Gem would say to me ‘it’s not who you are now but who you can be’.”
Mr Biddle urged others to take the plunge and start talking to those around them.
He said: “You can’t do it alone – nobody can.
“I know I’ll never be cured but I know I can live with PTSD.
“Now when I wake up I look forward to what is ahead.”
Gemma Biddle praised the event for helping to raise awareness of the issues surrounding mental health.
She said: “It’s important there is an understanding that you can interact with people who deal with mental health issues – they are no different, just suffering.”
Mr Biddle went on to praise Tod Sullivan – who was instrumental in organising the conference.
He said: “I just hope we see more events like this – Tod has done a truly amazing job.
“Events like this should be replicated throughout the county; it’s the only way to start changing things.”
As well as organising the event, Mr Sullivan was recently announced as Lowestoft’s first mental health ambassador.
He said: “It’s amazing so many people have come together.”
Mr Sullivan experienced trauma at a young age due to an alcoholic parent.
He never faced his problems and these later impacted his emotional development.
However, through Nacoa, The National Association for Children of Alcoholics, he met people with shared experiences and found hearing their stories provided the inner strength to confront his own personal battles.
Mr Sullivan said: “I realised there are people like me.
“The idea behind the conference was to get as many voices and experiences together as possible.
“To get people in a room, hearing other people, and feeling like they can share their stories because we know our communities are hurting.
“We want people to share their experiences, whether they need help or whether their stories can be used to help somebody else.”
He added: “People are connecting and when you feel those little connections between my life and your life, you feel less alone.”
The conference was undoubtedly a special day for all those involved, providing a vital forum to discuss mental health and the steps needed to remove the social stigma surrounding it. It was held at Lowestoft Community Church and attended by more than 300 people.
Josh Connolly grew up the child of an alcoholic and suffered first hand the effect of childhood trauma.
He opened the conference with a moving speech detailing his personal struggle.
The 30-year-old said: “It shaped the person I became. I was suffering immensely on the inside and doing anything I could to get through.”
Mr Connolly now volunteers for Nacoa, The National Association for Children of Alcoholics, and praised the charity as “instrumental” in recognising what he was experiencing.
He has since worked with MPs in launching the Manifesto for the Children of Alcoholics.
Mr Connolly said: “Nacoa helped me understand what I was suffering from and offered a place I felt heard and found my own hearing.”
He added: “I believe there is power in people’s stories. In sharing our experiences we can help others find healing in their own experiences.”
The Lowestoft Conference provided a forum for open discussion about the struggles surrounding mental health and has been praised unanimously by those who attended.
Steven Horvath is a 56-year-old veteran who has suffered from combat-PTSD for more than 30 years.
He said: “I was blown-up in a pub in Northern Ireland and still suffer badly from PTSD – having regular flashbacks and nightmares.
“Events like this need to be held to relieve the stigma of mental health.
“It’s also a great place for networking and finding the networks that can help you – that’s why I’m here today.”
Jill Anderson. 66, said: “I’ve experienced mental illness through a family friend and came to support the event.
“It’s been absolutely brilliant.
“You can just relate to it all and everything they say makes sense.
Ms Anderson highlighted the importance of the event and said: “It brings mental health to the forefront and shows there are people who can help.”