This week on Talk Learn Connect, Writer Yvonne Reddin asks friend and Mental Health Campaigner, Keith Kelly to share his story on his path to near destruction. How he took his life back and found a way to help others with his own mental health initiative - Jumpers for Goalposts (J4G)
I wanted to highlight more awareness on men’s mental health. You have overcome a lot of trauma in your life and come out the other end. Can you share your story?
I suppose looking back, things started to go wrong for me as far back as 2006 when a neighbour began a series of incidents out of the blue that would impact hugely on my mental health. We had always got on and never had bad words between each other.
Over the next two years he continuously did all manner of strange things to torment me and my family.
I tried many times to mediate with him and his family but it fell on deaf ears. I also made at least 10/12 complaints to the Garda always attempting to go through the appropriate channels to get to the bottom of the problem but to no avail.
"It culminated in Jan 2008 at 5am with him breaking into my home by throwing my garden bench through the front window and entering my house with a knife. It resulted in me being stabbed numerous times -missing the main artery to my heart by millimetres and puncturing my lungs"
After spending some time in hospital where they were able to patch up my physical wounds, It was my mental health that began to deteriorate. Over the next five years whilst hiding it as best I could from everyone - my life had become unbearable.
I attended some counselling, but I was unable to absorb anything at all from it; I felt a complete failure. My internal dialogue and conversations I was having with myself was constantly been put down by my inner critics- my inner demons.
The side effects included my inability to protect my family home, nightmares, flashbacks, carrying shame (which I now know wasn’t mine to carry) anger, rage and revenge.
"I had a huge fear of the dark, I was isolating unable to communicate, afraid to show anyone how vulnerable I had become - I was suffering with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)"
Trauma is a personal thing and when ignored unfortunately those silent screams continue internally, heard only by the one held captive by that trauma. I always tried to maintain a sense of normality to those around me and looking back now - I was just surviving, not healing.
I was living in a state of fight or flight all the time, with a heightened sense of awareness, always on edge as if awaiting to be attacked at any time.
Gambling, alcohol and drugs became my escape from that pain. When you are suffering with PTSD you become a huge risk taker because you have lost all respect for life. I hated myself, it all just wore me down, I felt I was just a burden to others.
In 2013, I tried to end all that pain by overdosing.
Thankfully, I wasn’t successful. Eventually speaking to my doctor and family, I decided to go back to counselling. My self-esteem and confidence was shattered but I was encouraged to try some voluntary work. A charity called Suicide or Survive (SOS) gave me the opportunity to start rebuilding myself with the help of some wonderful people.
Over the next few years, I went on many self-development courses, well being workshops, wellness programmes and facilitator training courses.
Going to events, enabled me to meet so many people along the way who have struggled with their mental health and have overcome many challenges but are now able to live very productive lives. My creativity, confidence and self-esteem came back and I was at last able to understand that for me isolation was not where I was gonna heal.
It was in the community of people that I would begin to thrive.
I went back to education and studied counselling skills in Maynooth University, also completing the Train the Trainer Facilitation course with Mental Health Ireland. I am now a fully qualified facilitator in delivering WRAP (a mental health programme) in communities, prisons and other services around the country.
Do I still have tough days? The answer to that would be YES but I now have the tools to navigate my way back to a place of wellness much quicker than before. It’s taken an awful long time to get to where I am in life now and I have found out so much about myself.
We all have mental health but maybe we tend to push it to one side until we’re really struggling. We need to take great care of our mental health just like we take care of our dental health (we brush our teeth daily so they don’t decay) We need to think of our mental health in the same way.
What I have learned, and I can only speak from my own experience (because there is no one way) is that for me talking really helps, people can and do recover every single day.
"J4G gives men an opportunity to leave the ego behind, come together to share a story or two, check in on how life is going on for each other and certainly share some much needed laughter"
How do you think men’s mental health is portrayed in the media and is there enough awareness now compared to ten years ago?
I still think we can do so much more, in the past number of years I have travelled the country going to recovery colleges. Advanced Recovery Ireland (ARI) is where people from different services come together to share information and stories. Unfortunately, there is a severe lack of funding in Ireland in the mental health sector.
Yes, there is lots more exposure around awareness and while there has been huge progress over the past ten years - the stigma surrounding mental health still needs to be addressed.
I would love to see schools bring wellness/ mental health programmes in as part of the curriculum at the secondary level.
Your initiative ‘Jumpers for Goalposts' (J4G) has been such a success, it shows how a simple idea can be so effective. Can you tell us more about J4G?
J4G’s success stemmed from a poem I wrote in 2017 called No More Jumpers Thrown Down which went viral and has been viewed over 700,000 times across social media platforms. It’s about me reminiscing about my youth. About how we would leave the house early of a Summers morning, get a ball in a field, throw some jumpers down as goalposts and play for hours on end.
Throughout the day lads would arrive and just join in, that was how we spent our day, often missing dinners and arriving home long after the streetlights had come on.
Following on from the poems success, I received many messages from around the globe from people recalling their own days of playing J4G. From this response, I decided to put out an invitation on Facebook to see if men 18 years and older were interested in an old school game of ball.
There was lots of positivity surrounding my post, so I set a date/time for the following week and over 50 people turned up. We had a great evening full of laughter, misplaced passes, and plenty of shots off target but it was so simple and those who couldn’t make it asked when the next game was on.
It has now travelled to many different counties and we even played a game at Tallaght stadium in front of 6,500 fans on a European night for Shamrock Rovers. J4G gives men an opportunity to leave the ego behind, come together to share a story or two, check in on how life is going on for each other and certainly share some much needed laughter.
It’s a way to make a real connection with fellow men, start that conversation and if we can signpost anyone who is struggling in the right direction- that’s what we can do.
I have had great support from Michael Nolan, Graham Merrigan and Mark Merrrigan. J4G has been given a platform to talk about men’s mental health on The Ryan Tubridy show and other radio stations, along with many national newspapers.