From needing help to helping others: Mark Smith's story
Blesma Member Mark Smith has an incredible story to tell.
Having signed up at 16 years of age with little-to-no education, he suffered with many mental health struggles post-service which nearly took his life. Then, a diagnosis set him on the right track. He got himself back up and back into education, eventually completing a post graduate diploma while dealing with the loss of his leg.
Now, with help from Blesma, he runs his own counselling service to help other veterans. When I was 16, I joined up as a Junior Soldier with the Coldstream Guards, then joined the 1st Battalion after completing my training. I spent nine years serving, from 1988 to 1997. During that time, I carried out ceremonial duties in London and armoured Infantry duties in Germany, and I took part in operational tours in the Gulf War, Northern Ireland, and Bosnia.
I had a lot of problems when I left the military and my marriage fell apart. I suffered with drink, drugs, anger issues and a few mental health problems as well. I had quite a few years on ‘the other side of the fence’. I was getting into trouble, spiralling downhill, and I ended up with a spell of homelessness as well. Following a suicide attempt, a psychiatrist took me on and diagnosed me with PTSD as a result of my military service.
That was the turning point for me, because after a few years of these issues I finally knew why I was how I was. Having a diagnosis gave me the kickstart I needed, and really helped me put into place where I was with my mental health. Later however, I saw an NHS counsellor, who couldn’t even hear my stories about Bosnia. He shut me off and said he wasn’t trained to deal with it. That really set me back, and I hit rock bottom again. That’s when I started thinking about what was going on out there; if that could happen to me, was it happening to other veterans, too? I was very lucky to come out the other side, but there are a lot who don’t. So I decided then that I wanted to help other veterans. At first, no one would take me seriously because I didn’t have any qualifications; I needed the paperwork.
I got help from Billy Macleod at Veterans in Action, and he encouraged me to get into education and get my maths and English qualifications. I then took three A levels to get into university, where I decided to study Counselling and Psychology. I learned so much about myself it was amazing, it was like I’d found myself again. We talk about reflection a lot in counselling, and when I looked back on the hard times and where I’d come from, it started making sense.
Studying PTSD helped me to make sense of things, and I asked my university if I could do an additional module for veterans. They agreed, and I graduated with a 2:1 honours. Next, I wanted to gain experience. I started doing a lot of volunteer work, including casework for SSAFA and counselling at a family support centre, and I found that I was able to communicate well with a lot of people from diverse backgrounds.
“If that could happen to me, was it happening to other veterans? I was lucky to come out the other side, but there are a lot who don’t. So I decided that I wanted to help other veterans”
Without disclosing too much, I was able to show that I understood their situation and empathised with what they were going through. At that time, I was working as a kitchen and bathroom fitter alongside my education, but soon I started to have health problems. I suffer with diabetes, and I was starting to get nerve damage in my big toes, and pains in my hands. That was when I started slowly making the transition, spending less time on labour and more time on the counselling side of things.
Whilst volunteering, I engaged with a lot of veterans and their families, helping to signpost them, and just talking through options to show what kind of counselling would be right for them. One thing I noticed was that many veterans don’t reach out until the very last point when it comes to their mental health, which can make NHS waiting lists frustrating for them to deal with when they need help there and then. I started doing more and more volunteering for veterans, not just counselling, but talking things through, which allowed me to signpost them to the people and organisations that could help. I carried on volunteering and studying, and finally started on my post-graduate diploma in Integrative Counselling and Psychotherapy.
Then came the point where I started losing bits. It started with an infection in my big toe that I didn’t even notice. It turned into sepsis, which meant the toe had to come off. The doctors said that four more days and I wouldn’t have made it. Things took a turn for the worse in my final year of university, as the infection had started to spread to the rest of my foot. I ended up having a below knee amputation, but I kept a positive attitude throughout thanks to the mindset and dark humour of other injured guys I’d worked with. Unfortunately, another infection meant I had to have a through knee amputation. I had to take a year out of university to heal, but that was the best thing I could have done. It healed nicely, and I was finally able to use a prosthetic which helped me to stay active – I even climbed Mount Snowdon with my brother!
“I can’t thank Blesma enough for that kickstart, because without it I don’t know where I’d be now. I’d have probably struggled on, but I didn’t need to struggle. It was just that one thing that meant so much, so thank you!”
Once I had completed my post-grad, I decided to set up a private counselling practice. I now had all the training and the insurance to run one properly, as a sole trader, but one thing I didn’t have was the money needed to get the equipment to kickstart it. That’s when I reached out to Blesma. My BSO Christine was very supportive, and she told me exactly what she needed from me in order to apply for a grant. The application was successful, and allowed me to buy a more suitable laptop for the business, as well as set up the website and pay for the software packages I needed.
As well as my own private clients, I now work with Cranstoun Inspire To Change in South Yorkshire. Of course, I still do my volunteering! I can’t thank Blesma enough for that kickstart because without it, I don’t know where I’d be now. I’d have probably struggled on, but I didn’t need to struggle. It was just that one thing that meant so much, so thank you!