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Mental health heroes fighting stigma are up for Who Cares Wins award

TALKING about mental health can be really difficult – but some people go above and beyond to help others open up and seek help.

They smash taboos around a tough topic and make it easier for all of us to chat about our feelings and recognise when we need extra help.

Dr Azza Aglan (l) has been nominated by Beth McKenzie (r), alongside Pete White (top r) and Dr Ahmed Hankir (bottom r) for the Who Cares Wins awards.

There were so many entries worthy of the Caroline Flack Mental Health Hero gong in The Sun’s Who Cares Wins awards – sponsored by the National Lottery, in partnership with NHS Charities Together.

But these three wowed with their commitment, care and willingness to share their own struggles with mental health.

The winner will be honoured in a glitzy ceremony hosted by Davina McCall screened on Channel 4 and All 4 on November 27.

Here are our finalists…

Pete White 

AS a communications engineer in the RAF, Pete White was deployed to Afghanistan, where it was his job to compile reports on comrades who had been killed or injured. 

And the trauma he experienced left him feeling suicidal. 

But after receiving treatment, Pete went on to qualify as a mental health consultant and has since helped countless people – even preventing several suicides. 

Pete, 35, who lives in Newport, Shrops, with wife Kelly, 38 and one-year-old son Zack, joined the RAF aged 21 and was deployed to Afghanistan in April 2011.

He said: “I had a promising career as an engineer in the RAF. I loved my job, and I was good at it. 

“But after a tough five months in Afghanistan, my life fell apart around me. 

“I worked for ten weeks on casualty reporting and essentially spent ten weeks in a hangar on my own watching people being killed or injured.

“This had a huge impact on me though it took me a long time to admit things weren’t right. 

“At my lowest, I suffered psychotic episodes and many times I felt on the verge of ending my own life.”

In 2017, Pete was discharged from the military on medical grounds. 

With the help of medication and therapy, he was able to rebuild his life and, in 2019, went on to write his book, From the Bottom Of The Barrel.

Pete said: “I wanted to end this stigma around mental health and show people suffering that they are not alone. That they can make it through.”

Pete White, a former soldier who now helps others with their mental health, has been nominated for a Who Cares Wins Award

He set up a business as a mental health consultant and speaker in January 2020. 

Pete has been nominated by former colleague Jake, 20, from Wolverhampton, West Mids, who met Pete while working at an IT firm.

Jake has struggled with his mental health and says he owes his life to Pete. 

He said: “I’d never opened up to anyone else about my mental health. 

“There was one time I did attempt to take my own life. I rang Pete to say goodbye.

“He lived an hour and a half from me but he jumped in the car and came to find me in the field where I was near my home. 

“He took me to hospital and made sure I was ok. He has kept in touch since. 

“I’m back on my feet now but if it wasn’t for Pete, I wouldn’t be here today.”

Pete has also been put forward for the Caroline Flack Mental Health Hero award by Hannah O’Neill, for the support he gave her after she fled a violent relationship.

Hannah, 39, a part-time nurse, from Birmingham, suffered financial, emotional and physical abuse over a period of ten years after marrying an older man when she was only 22.

After leaving him, she was diagnosed with complex post traumatic stress disorder and admits there were times she contemplated suicide.

Hannah said: “Although I’m not a veteran, like Pete I was diagnosed with PTSD after leaving an abusive relationship. 

“My mental health really deteriorated when I walked out but Pete was always at the end of the phone. 

“I’m not ashamed to say there were times when I felt like giving up. I’m not sure where I’d be today if it wasn’t for Pete.”

Dr Azza Aglan

HAVING a severe allergy and knowing that eating the wrong thing could be life threatening undoubtedly takes its toll on mental health.

But not all allergy sufferers get specialist mental health support. Which is where Dr Azza Aglan, a consultant clinical psychologist at Greater Manchester Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust, comes in.

Since setting up an innovative, cross-collaborative unit at the Allergy Centre at Wythenshawe Hospital in Manchester six years ago, she has helped transform the lives of 150 patients. 

One of those was Beth McKenzie, 19, whose life-threatening peanut allergy triggered debilitating anxiety

Aged 13, she had a severe allergic reaction, caused by a small amount of cross contamination at an Indian restaurant. 

But her anxiety that it would happen again became obsessive and crippling and had a significant impact on her life. 

Beth, who lives in Manchester, said: “Before I met Azza, I was unable to eat outside of my house for the fear that I would have an allergic reaction. 

Patient Beth McKenzie (r) has nominated Clinical Psychologist Dr Azza Aglan (l) for a Who Cares Wins award

“I stopped going out, I stopped eating the food my family had made me – I stopped living. I couldn’t even trust myself.”

Beth even had to cut short a family holiday due to her allergy anxiety. 

She said: “I was 16 and on holiday with my family in France. I ended up having to fly home with my mum a week early.

“I refused to eat and drink as I was convinced the water was laced with peanuts. 

“That sounds crazy, I know, however that is the control my allergy had over me – it almost killed me, and not in the way you’d expect.”

Beth was last year referred to Dr Aglan, who helped her to understand the reasons behind her crippling anxiety. 

She said: “She isn’t one of those therapists that does everything by the book. She just listened to me about what I needed to say.

“I did about eight months of therapy with Azza, which completely changed my life. 

“The way I looked at the world, more specifically food, completely transformed. 

“I started to finally leave my house. I started to eat food that other people had made for me.”

Beth, a singer-songwriter and model, has even been abroad on holiday. 

She said: “I am living the life I always dreamed of and I owe a lot of that to Azza.

“I honestly don’t know what I’d have done without her.”

Dr Aglan, 54, is currently one of the only clinical psychologists attached to an adult allergy clinic in the country.

The service is a partnership between Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust and Greater Manchester Mental Health NHS Trust.

Dr Aglan said: “Increasing evidence highlights the complex interaction between physical and mental health.

“Mental health difficulties that people with long-term physical health conditions experience impact on recovery and quality of life. We have the privilege of supporting people on their journey. There is no health without mental health.”

Dr Ahmed Hankir

DR AHMED Hankir was just a teenager when he was forced to flee his home in war-torn Lebanon.

The trauma of his past and having to sleep rough on the streets of Manchester while striving to qualify as a doctor left him suicidal. 

Now, the NHS psychiatrist and campaigner uses his experiences to help others and remove the stigma around mental health. 

Dr Hankir, also known as The Wounded Healer, is open and vocal about the fact he received psychiatric help himself.

Dr Hankir was born in the UK before moving to Lebanon as a teen. 

He returned to the UK aged 17 and worked 70 hour weeks stacking shelves and cleaning floors before getting into medical school.

After his hometown in Lebanon was bombed in 2006, he suffered severe mental illness.

Dr Ahmed Hankir has been nominated for a Who Cares Wins award

Dr Hankir, 40, said: “I had a severe mental health episode triggered by the trauma of the war in Lebanon combined with poverty, stigma and discrimination. 

“I was certain my family over there had been killed in a bombing and despite being in medical school at the time, within months I’d had to leave the course. 

“With no income I was forced to sleep rough in Manchester. 

“There’s such a stigma around mental health, I felt like I couldn’t reach for help, it felt like I was invisible.”

After receiving lifesaving treatment from an NHS psychiatrist, he was able to resume his studies and went on to qualify. 

Dr Hankir said: “Someone in the UK dies by suicide every 40 seconds and suicide is the biggest killer in people under 35 in the UK. 

“I’m fortunate I’m still here, so I’m determined to use my experience in the best way I can. 

“My message is clear: that it’s OK not to be OK, that there is no shame in experiencing mental health problems and that seeking help is a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness. 

“If I can recover and realise my dreams, other people can too.”

He now works at the Maudsley Hospital, in Denmark Hill, South East London, and has pioneered ‘The Wounded Healer‘, an innovative anti-stigma programme based on his own personal recovery.

He has been put forward for The Caroline Flack Mental Health Hero award by colleague Dr Jon Goldin and fellow mental health campaigner Mick Finnegan.

Mick said: “Ahmed’s work really gives people hope.

“I’ve known him since he was a trainee doctor and he’s helped me a huge amount. 

“I’ve had mental health episodes and have been sectioned. 

“In 2009, I was really unwell and was suicidal but his honesty inspired me to be a peer support worker and student social worker.

“I know I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him.”

Davina McCall is hosting The Sun’s Who Cares Wins awards

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  1. Pingback: Dame Deborah James, a selfless teen & heroic girl who saved mum’s life – The Sun’s Who Cares Wins winners revealed

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