Three years ago, Gary Peake had given up on life. He was living with PTSD after being medically discharged from the armed forces and was struggling to find a job. But after being introduced to the charity Help for Heroes, he was encouraged to join the Invictus Games Choir. This, he says, changed his life – and he now works as a mental health first aid (MHFA) trainer for Trentham-based Acacia Training.
Last week, Gary, 58, recorded a charity single alongside Jon Bon Jovi to honour military veterans, which he describes as one of the greatest moments of his life. His own journey to recovery is what inspired Gary to become a MHFA trainer, so that he could help others in distress.
He says: “Finding a purpose to help other people overcome depression, anxiety and PTSD played a huge part in my recovery path and to be able to talk openly about mental health and illness has been phenomenal.”
Gary, from Newcastle-under-Lyme, left the armed forces in 2015, after a 31-year career as a military parachutist and team medic. His experience with PTSD and struggle to find employment left him feeling hopeless and suicidal.
He says: “I phoned a friend and they got in touch with Help for Heroes who looked after me and got me into the Invictus Games Choir. I couldn’t sing a note but the choir became a major part of my recovery. It grounds you and gives you camaraderie and support. All of my problems just evaporate when I’m singing.”
The Invictus Games Choir supports the recovery of wounded, injured and sick military veterans and serving personnel through music. Last week the choir went to the famous Abbey Road Studios in London to re-record Bon Jovi’s single Unbroken alongside the singer to honour military veterans living with PTSD.
Prince Harry also took part in the recording and the proceeds will go to the Invictus Games Foundation, which oversees the adaptive multi-sport event founded by Harry.
Gary says: “It was such a proud moment to sing with Jon Bon Jovi. I’m a huge fan and I’ve been singing his songs for years. He was so kind and spent time talking to us all, telling us why he wanted to record the single and what it meant to him. We thought we were only going to record a chorus but we ended up working with him for 18 hours, recording and mixing. For me the choir has been my pathway to recovery and this experience really made that journey, all that struggle, worthwhile.”Another major part of Gary’s recovery was joining Acacia Training, which provides apprenticeships, short courses and government funded qualifications in a wide range of sectors. Gary now delivers MHFA training across the UK and has trained more than 1,200 people in the last two years.
The MHFA training is a two-day course which gives participants a deeper understanding of the issues that affect people’s mental health and teaches them practical skills that can be used every day, including how to spot symptoms, assessing the risk of self-harm, confidentiality and the best way to offer support. Clients include private sector companies, youth groups, charities, the armed forces, schools and colleges.
Gary says: “Prevention is always better than cure and it’s fantastic to see more and more major UK companies realising the importance of wellbeing at work and signing their employees up to MHFA training courses. I’ve had such positive feedback from people who have done the course and told me that they found it life-changing.”
Last year Gary won a Mental Health Star award at the Thrive Mental Health Commission Awards. He says: “The message is to never give up, there is a recovery pathway for everyone. The sooner we can help people in mental health distress the quicker we can get them on the road to recovery.”
Acacia Training is running Adult MHFA courses on 30/31 March and 27/28 April and Youth MHFA on 16/17 March. For more information, visit acaciatraining.co.uk.