After receiving support from his local NHS talking therapies service when his wife passed away in 2018, Leo, 32, set his sights on pursuing a career in mental health, and in February this year landed his ‘dream role’ at Sutton Uplift, one of three talking therapies services run by South West London and St George’s Mental Health NHS Trust.
In July 2015, Leo’s world was turned upside down when his wife received a terminal cancer diagnosis. The pair saved up to travel the world, using their remaining time together to tick off as many things from their bucket list as they could. Two years later, when Leo’s wife was given a second cancer diagnosis, he left his job as a website developer in the city to become her full-time carer.
“When my wife passed away in 2018, I sank into a deep depression that at times I felt I would never be able to escape from. The main things that kept me going were the love of my friends and family, a promise I made to my wife that I would do everything I could to rebuild my life, and my decision that I would find a career in which I could help others suffering like I was.”
One of the things Leo did to manage the loneliness and depression he was feeling was to reach out to his local NHS talking therapies service, Talk Wandsworth. He says the help and support he received played an important role in his recovery.
“I had countless hours of counselling both as a carer and as a widower. One day I felt like I had said everything I could and needed to try something new. This is when I found out about IAPT (NHS talking therapies) services.
“I applied for their Step 2 treatment which involves 1:1 cognitive behavioural therapy and group therapy sessions. I found it an immensely positive experience. The care of my psychological wellbeing practitioner and the tools she gave me have stuck with me to this day! I also knew I had found the type of place I wanted to work at.
“One of the great things about IAPT services is that they can also support with employment, as it was through Talk Wandsworth employment service that I started a part-time internship as a Wellbeing Navigator at Talk Wandsworth. I loved it from day one!”
Leo’s internship turned into a full-time position, and with the help of his manager and coach, he was able to advance to his ‘dream role’ as Sutton Uplift’s Wellbeing Lead in February this year.
“It has been one hell of a journey, but I am in a much better place now. I still miss my wife immensely, but now I carry her with me and know she would be proud of me with every person I help.”
Leo describes sharing his experiences as sharing what is in his ‘backpack’.
“I often talk to others about how we carry our stresses and emotions in our ‘backpacks’ with us at all times. Sometimes the best thing you can do is show someone else what’s in your backpack.” explains Leo.
“Sometimes the person will see what’s inside and think, ‘oh wow, I didn’t realise you had that in there, I can probably help you with that!’, or, ‘I used to carry that in my backpack too, the only thing that helped me was this!’, or best of all, ‘why on earth are you carrying that with you? I promise you that you do not have to carry that anymore!’.
“I remember feeling guilty about not wanting to live when it was the only thing my late wife wanted. It was only when I started opening up to people who I trusted and loved that I slowly managed to shake this weight off my shoulders.
“If showing my backpack can help or encourage just one person to do the same then I will be very happy!”
Leo’s advice to anyone who is feeling stressed, down or struggling to cope is: ‘reach out and connect with life in whatever way you can’.
“If reaching out to someone is too much, try going out into nature (even if it is just sitting on a bench at a park), stroking a dog/cat, smelling the flowers, reading a book you like, having a hot bath, watching your favourite show, trying a new hobby or eating healthy food.
“But always try to connect with others when you can. Schedule in a phone call. Don’t do it when you feel like it as you may never follow through – do it when your schedule says so. No matter how dark the place you are in feels, I promise you that you are not alone.
“Finally: connect, connect, connect! With anything and everything. It can be something as simple as learning and playing chess online. I personally took up painting as a tool to express myself and connect with others. Words can only carry so much; it was sometimes only when people saw my art that they realised just how dark a place I had been in. It was a way for others to connect with me and I how I felt. Creativity is a great way to explore yourself and your emotions.”
At Sutton Uplift, Leo leads the Wellbeing Team which offers a range of 1:1 and group support sessions covering a range of topics including coping with stress, developing your confidence, practicing self-care and achieving a healthier lifestyle. The team also runs a programme of workshops (both online and in person) which are free for all residents in Sutton who over the age of 18 and registered with a Sutton GP.
Leo has also exhibited his art in The Brick Lane Gallery in London and written a book titled I’m Good Grief: An Artistic Journey On Emotions & Mental Health.
About Sutton Uplift
Sutton Uplift is one of three NHS talking therapies services run by South West London and St George’s Mental Health NHS Trust. Talk Wandsworth and Merton Uplift provide talking therapies for people registered with a GP in Wandsworth or Merton.
NHS talking therapies, or psychological therapies, are effective and confidential treatments delivered by fully trained and accredited NHS practitioners. They can help with common mental health problems like stress, anxiety and depression.
You can access talking therapies for free on the NHS. You can refer yourself directly to an NHS talking therapies service without a referral from a GP, or a GP can refer you. NHS talking therapies services are also known as Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) services.