A military veteran from Staffordshire who won an award for his work as a mental health first aider is calling on people to mark Mental Health Awareness Week by taking the time to listen to those experiencing problems.
Gary Peake, from Newcastle-under-Lyme, won a Thrive West Midlands Mental Health Star award, organised by the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), for drawing on his own experiences to train more than 500 mental health first aiders.
The Thrive awards celebrate the people, teams or organisations who have made a significant contribution to improving mental health in their community.
Thrive West Midlands Mental Health Star award winner Gary Peake
Gary, aged 57, served in the RAF across the world, including Iraq, for 31 years. He was discharged with depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in 2015.
“After leaving the military, I really struggled because I didn’t want to admit that I had a mental health problem,” he said.
“I tried to cope by working around the clock in intense periods of self-employment, but this made me worse and I became addicted to alcohol. I am very lucky that my family were there for me.
“My GP and the Help for Heroes charity gave me lots of support. I joined the Invictus Games Choir as therapy and sing with them across the country, including at the Royal Albert Hall last year.”
Gary now works for Stoke-on-Trent company Acacia Training after delivering a mental health first aid course to its staff. He impressed company bosses so much that they took him on permanently.
Over the past 15 months, he has trained more than 500 people in mental health first aid, helping them to identify, understand and support someone who may be experiencing a mental health issue.
These new mental health first aiders work for companies of all sizes and in a variety of sectors, including construction, retail and sport.
Gary is also secretary of the Royal British Legion in Newcastle-under-Lyme, where he helps homeless veterans to find jobs and accommodation.
He added: “Mental illness is a huge issue for rough sleepers because they live in such hardship and are battling addictions.
“Mental Health Awareness Week is an ideal time to talk to someone who is homeless – they all have very sad stories. Just taking the time to listen makes a big difference.
“I’d advise anyone who has mental health problems to look to the future and focus on potential opportunities. Dealing with mental illness is a journey and there are many organisations that can help.
“I was very humbled to win a Thrive award – I didn’t know I’d been nominated – and it’s given me more focus to help more people.”
Thrive West Midlands was launched by the WMCA to improve mental and physical health and wellbeing, as part of its ambition to make sure everyone in the area has the opportunity to have a good quality of life, a worthwhile job and an affordable home.
The awards form part of the wider Thrive West Midlands action plan on mental health, which focuses on the experience of real people with mental health needs alongside the expert knowledge of professional mental health practitioners and organisations.
Sean Russell, director of implementation of Thrive West Midlands, said: “The Thrive awards celebrate the amazing people across the region who are making a difference to mental health.
“It’s fantastic that winning an award is helping Gary to raise awareness of what we can all do to improve mental health and wellbeing in our local communities.
“He is making a huge contribution towards our ambition to train 500,000 West Midlands people in mental health awareness by 2027.”
Mental Health Awareness Week is taking place from Monday 13 to Sunday 19 May. For more information, visit www.mentalhealth.org.uk