Fight of my life

James Winter, 26, who battled depression after leaving the army
James Winter, 26, who battled depression after leaving the army

As a young lad, James Winters longed to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the army and he was thrilled when his dream came true.

James, now 28, of Lostock Hall, served in the Royal Signals and spent four-and-half years in the army including 12 months in Iraq during two tours of duty.

He was a driver line-man, responsible for driving all military vehicles and providing protection for VIPs and convoys. This meant driving all around Iraq and ensuring the safety of anyone travelling with him.

James says: “I joined the army in 2002 when I was 18. My dad and sister were both in the army before me and for as long as I can remember, I always wanted to join the army too.

“I absolutely loved it, especially meeting people, forming strong friendships and travelling the world.

“It provided me with valuable opportunities and experiences and I have very fond memories about my time in service. I don’t regret joining the army at all.”

While James was in the army, he was fine. It was only a couple of years after he left in December 2006 that he started experiencing problems.

At first, he put it down to missing army life and adjusting to life in the outside world, but after a while, he realised his problems were deeper.

He explains: “I never really noticed any problems when I was in service or for the first couple of years after I got out.

“But after a while, I started to feel empty and down but just thought it was because I missed the army. I was having regular nightmares but just thought it was normal.”

James got married in 2010 and even at the happiest time of his life, he still felt depressed. He continued to struggle with nightmares about his time in Iraq, mood swings and lack of sleep.

This took its toll on his marriage and James and his wife split up after 18 months of marriage.

James recalls: “I started realising that even when I was happy, I felt indifferent to everything and just felt empty.

“Splitting up with my wife was the hardest thing I have ever been through and I no longer had anyone to keep me going. At my lowest time, I very rarely slept, drank everyday and didn’t talk about anything. I felt like there was no way out.

“I tried to bury my head and ignore what was happening to me.”

After trying antidepressants which didn’t make a difference, James eventually decided to get help. He was referred to the Military Veterans’ Service, which provides specialist mental health support for ex-service personnel across the North West, provided by Pennine Care NHS Foundation Trust.

James met with a therapist once a fortnight for five months to take part in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy.

James says: “I was nervous about going to see a therapist at first, it sounded a bit extreme but actually it was nothing like I thought it was going to be.

“Being able to talk to someone was just what I needed; I didn’t realise talking about things would make such a big difference.”

The therapist was able to help James to address his depression and support him to make changes to his lifestyle, such as attending the gym, getting involved in the Territorial Army and establishing a routine for household chores.

Therapy helped James to learn how to challenge his negative thoughts about himself, his situation and the future.

Catherine Corker, high intensity therapist for Pennine Care, explains: “Often when people are depressed they stop participating in activities that give them a sense of pleasure and achievement.

“James and I worked together to break down key tasks so they felt more manageable, which provided structure to his routine.

“Once he began to make personal achievements, he started to regain confidence in himself and became more able to cope with how he was feeling and day to day problems.”

James is now able to lead a full and active life and is urging other veterans experiencing mental health problems to speak up. He even recently completed the Preston marathon to raise money for Help for Heroes.

James, who is a custody officer at Preston Magistrates’ Court, says: “No one ever talked about problems in the army and would just have a drink instead but getting help has changed the way I think about everything.

“Now I don’t drink anywhere near as much and always sleep well. I no longer have nightmares and am genuinely a chilled out person again and don’t waste time getting stressed about things.

“The last two years have been the hardest of my life but now I have got over my problems and can start rebuilding my life.

“My biggest regret is not getting help sooner because the longer you leave it, the worse you get and the more you lose.

“If anyone else feels the way I did, I’d tell them to get help straight away.”

- For help, call 0161 253 6638 or visit www.penninecare.nhs.uk/military-veterans