Widowed husband opens up about his family's work to promote mental health awareness
It is over two years since my wife Sally took her own life on Boxing Day 2015, writes Gordon Allan.
A day my life changed completely. A day that created an empty space in my life and which asked so many questions about the woman I loved, myself and the future that had been tragically taken away from the family and myself.
Many of those questions remain unanswered, I will never know for certain why Sally did what she did, but as I said at the time I believe it was due to mental health problems she had been masking from family, friends and myself.
With the benefit of hindsight and a newly gained understanding of anxiety and depression, I now realise what a toll that must have taken on her day after day. I now know that was too heavy a burden for Sally to carry alone. She wanted to protect the family from her pain but in the end there was a price all of us had to pay.
If only she had reached out for help. As someone messaged at the time: ‘You can be surrounded by love, but the mind can be a lonely place at times’.
In trying to answer those questions, I have become passionate about doing my bit to improve mental health. The strength and determination to do that has come from the love and compassion of people in our region.
Back in those dark days just after Christmas 2015, what kept the family going was the ‘comfort blanket’ of support we received. That support reached us in so many ways; Facebook messages, insightful letters from people who had attempted to take their own lives, strangers in the street and those who got in touch to relate their own fond memories of Sally.
How could I ever forget the Search4Sally Facebook page being lit up with pictures of hundreds of candles in her memory on New Year’s Eve 2015, it was then and still is a beautiful memory of a very dark time.
Amongst the love and compassion was another loud voice. It was spoken by people keen to talk about their mental health issues, or loved ones they cared for. There were so many people who seemed relieved to have someone to talk to, it was humbling to have their trust. A clear message came across, it said, keep talking about mental health, help us raise awareness and end the stigma that stops people reaching out for the help they deserve.
In Sally people seemed to identify with an ordinary wife, mother, granny, sister and friend who struggled with mental health, it could have been them or someone they knew.
As a family we responded by setting up the Sally Allan Fund to raise funds for Tyneside and Northumberland Mind. Our initial target was £3,000. We just wanted to turn our pain into a positive by helping others, it’s what Sally would have wanted.
The support was amazing, within weeks we had raised over £25,000 and as of today that figure is now closer to £35,000. Well over 1,000 people have donated to the fund, the majority of them unknown to the family, just ordinary people who care about mental health and want to make a difference. I would like to say a huge thank you to everyone who has donated.
With the monies raised the family and I worked with Tyneside and Northumberland Mind to develop and deliver a free one hour Mental Health Awareness Presentation. As a family we had come to realise that we knew very little about mental health and that was probably true for most people. We reasoned that the best way to help people was to increase their understanding and awareness.
From our experience it was clear that a lot of the stigma was the result of people being afraid to open up and talk about their own mental health, or how to start that important conversation with someone they knew who might appreciate some care and support.
The first Sally Allan Mental Health Awareness presentation was launched early in 2016. The monies raised enables Tyneside and Northumberland Mind to deliver the presentation to businesses, public sector bodies, charities and community groups. Since January 2016 it has helped over 3,000 people in over 100 different organisations. The plan is to continue to reach as many people as possible and whilst the Fund is currently financially secure we need to ensure further funds are raised to plan for the future. Plans are being developed to do a trial mental health awareness presentation in one or two schools but that is subject to further funding.
After two years I have decided it is time to do my own fund-raising event. When Sally took her own life, we had been married for 37 years. July 2018 is our 40th wedding anniversary and to celebrate those wonderful years we shared together, I have decided to do my first, and probably last Triathlon in Ponteland on June 3.
Being physically active is not only important for your physical health it is important for your mental well being too. That is the reason why I have championed another mental health project in Northumberland, Being Active Matters, and helped to secure £142,000 from Sport England and £30,000 from the county council.
Sally was always looking after others, it was her greatest strength, but as I now know, it was also her greatest weakness as we all need to take time out to look after our own mental well being. It isn’t selfish to look after yourself as you cannot spend all your time thinking and worrying about other people, it isn’t good for your own well being, we all need time out.
However, providing I give myself enough time out, I like to think that by helping to raise over £200,000 to support mental health in the North East Sally would be happy with her legacy. It’s comforting to think Sally is still out there helping others.