Understanding and accepting that you’re struggling are two of the most challenging things many people face when they’re finding things difficult – and that’s before it comes to asking for help.
However, it’s those first realisations that LFB firefighters Dean Corney and Mark Smith know are essential, as seeking support early could prevent your mental health declining further… and that’s why they’ve taken matters into their own hands.
The two friends identified a growing trend in men struggling with their mental health, but wanted to find a new way of helping them speak out in a comfortable and safe environment – somewhere they wouldn’t feel judged or worried that they’re in the spotlight – before then signposting them to our Charity if they need further support.
With that in mind, they recently set up a men’s walking group to encourage fire and rescue service personnel to join together, enjoy a walk and chat to each other at their own pace. They now hope to push the initiative out nationally, having seen incredible success in just a few short months.
“I’ve been in the job for 18 years and seen a few things in that time,” says Dean. “I always thought I was quite an open person and I was quite shocked when I sat down and thought about it.
“I realised actually, I don’t talk about anything. I’m a big advocate for getting people to talk, but I wasn’t myself. I thought, how many more people aren’t?”
Dean set up the walking group last year, with the support of his colleagues Sally Brookes, Rebecca Dingvean and Annabel Green.
“The idea actually came to us three years ago,” Dean says. “We wanted to get mental health on the table. We have The Fire Fighters Charity and counselling through the brigade, but it’s encouraging men to speak up first, before that.
“We got talking to Sally, who is the secretary of the Women’s Action Committee, and it was actually her brainchild. The percentage of suicide in the UK is really high for men and we don’t talk as much as women, plus of course a lot of the fire service is men, so she suggested creating a relaxed atmosphere somewhere, where men could talk to men – because they don’t really have an outlet at the minute.
“We knew we needed to break the barriers down and try and offer an alternative where men can talk off the record, not counselling, just a bit like an AA meeting in some ways.
“It can be quite intimidating for people to walk into a room. We were really keen to make it clear that it’s not counselling, it’s just a relaxed area for men to talk and vent.
“We’re seeing already, in such a short time, how it’s helping which is brilliant.”
While Dean says they expected one or two people to turn up at first, they were shocked when it quickly shot up to as many as 10 as the word spread round.
“Some people come back, some don’t, and we’ve had really great feedback. We’re now in talks to expand beyond London,” he adds.
“We try to encourage people to reach out at the early stages, rather than keeping it to themselves and bottling it up until it reaches crisis point.
“Then we can signpost them to The Fire Fighters Charity, which is a brilliant place to go and, again, not necessarily for when you’re at crisis point. It’s early on, when you realise you’re struggling. It’s a great facility that we have. Get there early.”
Mark, who helped Dean set up the group, adds: “I went through a bit of a rough time a couple of years ago myself with my mental health and the realisation now of coming out here and talking about it, you realise you’re not alone. It’s knowing it’s okay to talk and I found it really beneficial. It really does work.
“It’s the easiest concept in the world, just turn up, walk around and talk. Simple as that, it really is.”
The group begin by meeting at Beckenham Place Park before heading for a walk together. A few minutes in, they then stop and stand in a circle, rating how they’ve been feeling out of 10 – sharing as much or as little as they like.
They end by saying one positive thing that’s happened to them, or that’s going on in their life, before heading on a walk together round the park for an hour or so, before finally doing the same at the end – when Dean says most scores go up slightly.
London firefighter Ricky Nuttall has been to a few of the walks himself, having begun struggling with his mental health following a serious incident at work.
“The thing about these walks is, we’re not here to give advice, we’re not here to council each other, what we are is, in its most simplistic form, a bunch of guys that have either suffered or not suffered with mental health, that want an opportunity to go on a walk under no pressure and no obligations, it doesn’t cost you anything and the worst case scenario is you get a good walk out of it and get your steps in for the day!” says Ricky.
“You can see a distinct, defined difference between someone at the start of the walk and someone at the end. That’s amazing to see, that someone – in the space of an hour – could have come out of their shell enough to start opening up about personal stuff and get something out of it.
“There’s actually a quote I want to use, there’s a boy and a horse and they’re in the woods… the boy says to the horse, I can’t see a way through, and the horse says to the boy, ‘can you see your next step?’ the boy says, ‘yes’, and the horse says, ‘just take that’.
“That for me is what this is about, metaphorically and physically, we are just taking one step at a time, opening up if we want to.”
Another London firefighter that’s seen first-hand what a difference the walk can make is Craig Elliott, who says: “I was going through a particularly hard time when I first heard about these walks through an officer. I was just trying to get myself back to work at the time.
“You never know where to start when you’re going through mental health issues, it’s like everything’s on top, so I thought this was my first step out.
“For me, this is the beginning of my week sometimes. It’s on a Tuesday morning and I feel like my week doesn’t actually begin on a Monday now. Walking around with like-minded people, sometimes not even saying anything, just actively doing something.”
The men are often signposted to our Charity at the end of the walk, to seek further wellbeing support, and Craig adds: “Even if you don’t feel you need the Charity at times, when you do need it, that’s when you know about it.
“I think all firefighters know about the Charity and really appreciate what it brings to us. We’re very lucky to have that.”
One walker who knows all about the support we offer is firefighter Terry Leigh. He regularly shares his experiences with the other members of the group, to encourage them to reach out when they need help.
“I didn’t need to reach out to the Charity myself until 10 years into my career,” he says. “I had a potential career-ending injury and was told by the NHS that I should be looking for a new career, due to lack of strength or mobility in my right hand.”
He says the support he received helped him return to work and get back to his normal life.
If you’re interested in finding out more about the walking group, or to get guidance setting up your own in your area, you can chat to Dean on MyFFC by tagging @DeanCorney in your post in a group or direct messaging him. You can also visit the group’s Twitter page here or Instagram page here, or email email@example.com.
To join My Fire Fighters Charity (MyFFC), click here: