Steven Pullan was ‘given his life back’ by a mental health charity, and now he volunteers to help others, in a similar position. Sheena Hastings reports.
LOOKING at Steven Pullen today, fit and glowing with health, it’s difficult to believe that just a few years ago he was in a psychotic state, curled up in a ball in a damp, partially derelict flat and wishing he could die.
He weighed five-and-a-half stone and was too weak to walk upstairs.
Penniless, frightened and in need of medication, he saw nothing to live for.
Steven’s mental health had been fragile for many years, but a rapid physical and mental decline had happened in the months after he was raped on his way home from the bar where he worked in Leeds.
For his own protection he was moved to an outlying area.
The rape and its aftermath of paranoia, terror of going out and of being alone in the company of any strange man, contributed to a downward spiral of severe depression, unemployment and complete isolation.
Due to a problem with his rent, a housing officer called, saw the state he was in and referred him to the mental health charity Community Links (CL).
Liz Lee, then a drug and alcohol housing support worker at CL, met Steven and immediately went about organising a support plan for him, which included fighting tooth and nail to get him moved to more suitable and safe accommodation in a small bungalow.
Improving his physical environment was vital to his recovery, Steven believes.
The holistic, multi-faceted approach to his care was co-ordinated by Liz, using CL’s own services and those of partner organisations.
He was diagnosed as also having a borderline personality disorder and the plan included medication, counselling, cognitive behaviour therapy and hypnotherapy.
Alongside these, Liz sorted out his rent and other bills until he was able to take care of them himself.
After the initial crisis, Liz continued to see Steven for a few hours a week over nine months, and continued to support him while he slowly regained his health and wellbeing – taking one step at a time in learning to live again.
“Liz brought me back to life. She was the first person to believe in me and never let me down,” says Steven, who’s now 27.
“She and the whole organisation at CL made me feel I was of some value as a human being. Before that I felt so worthless.”
As well as the trauma of the rape, Steven was helped to unravel events and feelings going back to his difficult childhood, which had led him being prescribed anti-depressants at the age of 14 after the first of several suicide attempts.
“I realised quite young that I was gay and was bullied for it all the time at school.
“At one point I got so distressed that I went and slept in a phone box, and after that just ran off.”
For two years Steven lived on the streets of Manchester, earning money any way he could and developing problems with drink and drugs.
What brought him back to Yorkshire was a kindly man, who wanted a lasting relationship with Steven and persuaded him to move back to Leeds.
For five years Steven worked in a bar, sometimes singing for the crowd on party nights but still dogged by bouts of depression. But his use of drink and drugs and mood swings also led to difficulties with his partner.
Many years of emotional and psychological difficulties were brought to a head in the wake of the rape Steven suffered, and although recovery itself has been very painful at times, he says he now feels a mental and physical strength he has never known before.
“I am the same person but also quite different from that almost-dead person Liz found in the awful flat. I know for a fact that I’d be dead without her help and patience, and gradually felt that I wanted to help others to recover from problems like mine.
“That’s why, when Community Links started a volunteer programme a couple of years ago, I asked if I could sign up. I volunteer two days a week, and at any one time I am involved with helping two or three clients for a period of six to nine months who’ve had mental health problems associated with drink or drugs or both. Whatever help a client needs we give, and help them to find new meaning in life.”
The support volunteers give is generally around helping clients to re-engage with the community.
They may need help in getting out of the house and facing the world, using public transport, shopping, doing paperwork, going to a class or finding avenues of new friendships.
Volunteers are given an induction and training; they’re also monitored and supervised by the CL professional team.
CL works with clients committed to recovery, and volunteers only work with low-risk individuals.
Liz Lee, who’s now the volunteer co-ordinator at CL, says: “Volunteering plays a strategic role in our service users’ recovery.
“The relationship between volunteer and service user is different to that of a paid worker, and although the remit remains focused and organised it provides an opportunity for a relaxed and enabling pathway to independence.
“Our volunteers are former service users, full and part-time workers, students and retired people. All have an active interest in mental health, wellbeing and a belief that recovery is possible”.
Steven’s longer-term aim is to work professionally with clients. But for now, he is enjoying giving back as an enthusiastic volunteer. He also has a steady, happy relationship.
“When I am with someone who has been in crisis, I know I can help them, if only by listening and not being judgemental… I know I was that person a few years ago and CL gave me my life back.”