I am heading into my sixty fifth year of life and still learning how to live

Damien’s story is being shared as part of the Adult Learners’ Festival 2022, to celebrate and promote the value of returning to education as an adult.

HEADSUP Kildare is an interagency programme managed by County Kildare Leader Partnership. It supports men in distress through the delivery of a wide range of programmes and initiatives across the county. The programmes aim to help develop the participants’ resilience and assist them to engage with local education, employment and mental health services so that they can be supported to improve their current circumstances.

HEADSUP Kildare is shortlisted for the AONTAS STAR Awards 2022 in the category of adult learning initiatives that support health and wellbeing.

Damien at the beach
Nothing in my wide range of experiences, both as a volunteer and professionally, prepared me for the effects of a near fatal accident that occurred in 2014. The catastrophic physical injuries were clear for everyone to see, and people marvelled how I recovered physically.

But what many, including myself, failed to recognise was the effect the accident had on my mental health. I was not willing or capable of recognising or understanding the toll that the accident had on my mind. I buried myself in my work as if to prove that I was stronger than the hidden anguish that I was living.

Eventually the time came that the stress of this buried anguish was having a detrimental effect on my physical health. I finally took the decision to give up work and take early retirement. It was after this when I no longer had work as a distraction, that the reality came into sharp focus. Against this mental anguish, the train of my life came to a shuddering abrupt halt. Terrified of my thoughts and emotions, I was floundering in a morass of fears and doubts. I arrived at a point where I thought the only way out for me, and my family, was to end my life. Eventually my family persuaded me to seek help. Thus commenced a slow but gradual recovery that continues to this day. There followed extensive engagement with the HSE mental health community team and subsequently my engagement with the HEADSUP Kildare programme that enabled me to realise that it was ok not to be ok and to recognise the value of my lived experience.

Learning with HEADSUP Kildare

The very first learning outcome for me on the programme was through interactions with other members of the group, which helped me to realise that I was not alone and that issues with mental health can affect people in many ways.

Over the course of HEADSUP, I also completed my own personal WRAP programme (Wellness, Recovery, Action, Planning) which added to my knowledge and awareness around my own mental health. The WRAP process supports you to identify the tools that keep you well and create action plans to put them into practice in your everyday life. All along the way, WRAP helps you incorporate key recovery concepts and wellness tools into your plans and your life. The key concepts of WRAP are: Hope, Personal responsibility, Education, and Self-advocacy.

Learning about Mental Health and Personal Goals  

I learnt how mental health can be maintained and nurtured using the techniques and strategies of wellness, such as mindfulness, recognition of triggers and the power of sharing. Using these methods, I was able to build my own resilience. The programme also introduced me to strategies for setting personal goals, the importance of having clearly defined objectives and accepting the responsibility of achieving those goals. It equally taught me to expect to fail at times, and the importance of having a plan to get around those setbacks. The programme reinforced the importance of self-advocacy and accepting that, at times, you will need to fight for what is good for you as a person.

Sharing Stories

The sharing of stories of illness and recovery within the group setting was powerful and the connections created a shared bond of the lived experience of trauma. For me, it underlined the need not to isolate but to reach out to others, and that self-driven recovery will succeed far better in a supportive community. Hearing the testimony of my peers, those who had travelled a similar journey, helped me to understand my own journey and to recognise the skills and goodness that makes me who I am and the gifts that I can share with others.

The encouragement and caring of the HEADSUP team, together with the testimony of participants from previous programmes who had moved forward, set alight the beacon of hope in my life once more. This made it possible for me to come through the fog of muddled thoughts, empowering me to set objectives and goals, and to map the pathway to further recovery.

On completion of the 12-week programme provided by HEADSUP Kildare, I felt empowered by the skills that I had learnt to be confident in myself and to set goals for my future journey. One such goal was to equip myself with the knowledge and skills which would assist me in continuing my recovery and to be able to offer support to men who, like me, find it difficult to engage with their emotions and look after their mental health.

 Continuing the Learning Journey

Since completing HEADSUP  two years ago, I have successfully completed a course and have been awarded a certificate in Community Development and Leadership from NUI Maynooth.

Now, with the support and encouragement of the HEADSUP team, I am currently a student in DCU where I am working to gain a qualification that will enable me to be involved in the community as a peer support worker.

I now find myself as a member of the HEADSUP team, as a student on placement, supporting men like myself to get a better handle on their mental health.

I am also a keen amateur photographer and poet, which are two things I do to help support my mental health and which help me with my recovery. In both photography and poetry, I have made several contributions to the HEADSUP Facebook Page. It’s good to be both seen and heard.

There is no doubt in my mind that my engagement with HEADSUP Kildare was pivotal to my recovery and return to believing in myself and my abilities, and to valuing my life and the possibilities of hope.

For more information on the AONTAS Adult Learners' Festival 2022, take a look at our website. 

Learn more about Heads Up Kildare here.