Man with a mission to help improve our mental health

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Today is World Mental Health Awareness Day. Catherine Scott meets one man whose experience of mental health issues has led to an entirely new career helping others.

It was when his mother was diagnosed with dementia that Gary Cox realised that he was suffering from the strain of trying to get the right care for her.

Gary Cox

Gary Cox

“It took four years for them to eventually diagnose mum with dementia,” says Gary. “But it didn’t stop there. There was all the bureaucracy to work through to make sure that mum was getting the best possible care,” says Gary, from Leeds.

“I suddenly realised that it was all having a massive impact on me and my mental health. I’ve always been a positive person, but I was starting to have constant worries and concerns and low mood.

“I’d lost my dad in 2009, mum started to show signs of dementia in 2013 and I was working full time while trying to look after her. I think it just started to take its toll one me.

“I thought that there must be something I could do to help myself. The problem with mental health services in the NHS is not only the waiting lists to be seen, but also you have to be in a really, really bad place a lot of the time for anything to be done. I didn’t want to get to that point.

Gary Cox, co-founder of Be You Leeds, helping those who are experiencing stress and anxiety.

Gary Cox, co-founder of Be You Leeds, helping those who are experiencing stress and anxiety.

Gary, a qualified accountant, looked into Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and devised himself strategies to improve his mental wellbeing.

He found it really helped and he even started mentoring people who were also struggling.

“I started to realise that I really had something that could help other people and I wanted to make a difference to people’s lives, to people who were struggling or suffering low self-esteem, anxiety and depression. By helping others it was really helping me.”

Gary started to devise a programme drawn from his own experience .

He sought advice from Chris Osborne, of Leeds Anxiety Clinic .

“I didn’t just want it to be one of those talks that people go along to, enjoy but may or may not take small things away from. I wanted to do something that would help people make real changes to their lives, to help them get control back.

“I did a bit of market research and asked people about self-help programmes and books they may have used. Half of them said they didn’t get through them. It made me realise that people need support but they also need structure.”

He ran his ideas past family and friends to gauge their opinion. The response from younger members of the family was particularly interesting.

“I talked to my nieces and they made me realise just how powerful social media is when it comes to affecting young people’s self-esteem. Not just posting pictures but the amount of likes they get or don’t get by way of validation. It is a very important and concerning area.”

It was while devising his programme that Gary met James Black when they were both doing some volunteering.

“James had a friend with depression and he was interested in anything that might help him. He is also younger than me and it really helped to have a younger person’s perspective, especially when it comes to social media.

“He also shares my passion for helping people combat anxiety and build wellness so they are able to tackle life head on with confidence.”

The pair decided to work together to create Be You Leeds, an interactive programme, which is officially launched at Leeds Town Hall next month.

The ‘Be You’ programme aims to show people where anxiety comes from, how the brain and body manages stress and provides tools people can use to reconfigure their thinking.

It focuses on self-awareness, understanding the way the brain works and why people have the thoughts and feelings they do.

“So many people say to me, ‘but that’s just the way I’m wired’ But it isn’t, you do have control and the ability to change the way you feel, you just need support and a structured approach,” says Gary.

The programme also looks at people’s triggers, emotions and the effect that past experiences have on their lives.

“We want people to live in the present not the past. Past experiences do not shape future events no matter what people think.”

The initial two-and-half- hour seminar takes place on November 7 at Leeds Town Hall and can cater for up to 40 people.

To help put the programme into practice, everyone is given a workbook to complete over four weeks.

“We then follow up with them by telephone to see how they’re managing,” says James.

“We feel this is a different and more practical approach to effecting real change in people’s lives.”

Gary is so passionate about Be You Leeds that he has given up his day job to concentrate on the programme.

“I am Leeds through and through and a staunch Leeds United supporter and so I wanted to launch this in Leeds, but there is no reason why we can’t roll it out to other areas as there really is a need,” says Gary.

“I have spent more than two years of my life developing this, to help people make positive changes to their lives and I believe we have something really special here.

“Unlike some other programmes we follow people and support them. At the end of the four weeks we will either Skype them or telephone them for a one-to-one session to see how they feel.”

Gary says his programme is aimed at people who on a wellbeing barometer of one to 10 fall somewhere in the middle when it comes to mental wellbeing

“They fluctuate on a daily basis with anxiety, low self-esteem and low mood. They are surviving their lives but not living their lives. They know they aren’t feeling well but they put up with it – it is those people that we believe we can help.”

A UK-wide stress survey found that almost three quarters of adults (74 per cent) have at some point over the past year felt so stressed they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope.

The survey – commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation – also found that almost a third of people (32 per cent) had experienced suicidal thoughts or feelings because of stress.

“I just want people to have better, happier lives. We aim to make a complex area simple.”

74 per cent of UK adults have felt so stressed at some point over the last year they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope.

81 per cent of women said this compared to 67 per cent of men.

83 per cent of 18 to 24 year-olds said this compared to 65 per cent of people aged 55 and over.

32 per cent of adults said they had experienced suicidal feelings as a result of stress.

35 per cent of women said this compared to 29 per cent of men.

39 per cent of 18 to 24 year-olds said this compared to 25 per cent of adults aged 55 and over.

16 per cent of adults said they had self-harmed as a result of stress.

18 per cent of women said this compared to 13 per cent of men.

29 per cent of 18 to 24 year-olds said this compared to six per cent of adults aged 55 and over.