Stories of Hope: Chris Wild
“Finding happiness in trivial moments is a huge part of how I cope with the world.”
Children in care and care leavers are an especially vulnerable group of young people, who – according to the – Mental Health Foundation – have an increased risk of experiencing mental health difficulties and substance abuse issues. In June this year, Chris Wild, an author, keynote speaker and campaigner for young people in care, published his second book, The State of It, which looks at how the care system is failing young people and what can be done to tackle this.
In this week’s story of hope, Chris talks about his own experience growing up in care and his experience as a professional in the care sector, the impact it has had on his life, how he is using his traumas to effect change in the sector and how he looks after his own mental health.
Your first book Damaged tells the story of your life growing up in care in Halifax and the abuse that you witnessed within the system. What impact has that had on your life and mental wellbeing?
I ended up in care when I was 11, after my dad died suddenly. After that my life fell apart in so many ways. I came from a pretty normal family and we had a normal, happy life, but the fall-out from dad’s death shattered that. I went off the rails, got in with a ‘bad’ crowd and started drinking and taking drugs and it took me decades to escape from that. While I was in care I witnessed so many horrific abuses of power – physical abuse, sexual abuse – at the hands of people who were supposed to be caring for all these vulnerable, broken kids. In many ways, I was one of the lucky ones. By the time I finished writing Damaged in 2018, telling the stories of some of these people, 22 had either died of drug overdoses or taken their own lives. I’m happily married, I have three beautiful children and I am working to try and change the system that destroyed all of those lives, but there is a guilt attached to surviving. I spent a long time lost. I ended up with nothing; alone, addicted to drugs and drink, penniless and still in debt. I felt I was a weight on everyone who knew me, a failure. I felt I’d been given the chance to survive and I’d failed, that I didn’t deserve the life I’d been given. On my 28th birthday, I tried to take my own life too. When it didn’t work, my first reaction was that I’d failed again, but I soon realised that was my rock bottom. It was the place I’d been heading since the day my dad died. I’d got there and I’d still survived. From that moment everything changed. I wasn’t free of my trauma, I’m still not, but I could finally see a way up from the bottom.
You chose to follow a career in the care system as a way to make change from the inside out but, even decades on, you found many of the same issues, along with plenty of new ones. How did you respond to that?
This is what has spurred on my campaigning and activism work. I try to make a difference by the way I do my job and how I work with the kids in my care individually, but I campaign on a national level and was recently part of the care-experienced panel for the Care Review. My second book The State of It shines a light on the impact of government cuts, unregulated care homes, it looks at the challenges care home kids face today, like county lines drug gangs, child exploitation and the asylum process. Speaking out like this gets some people’s backs up, but I’m not afraid to talk honestly about the situation, because these kids can’t tell their stories themselves. Someone has to give them a voice and hold those in positions of power to account.
Working in these environments and being faced with these stories has had an impact on your mental health and in both books you talk about experiencing breakdowns. How do you look after your own mental health?
Traditional talking therapy doesn’t work for me. I find it hard to speak to counsellors who don’t have lived experience, either of mental health issues or of life in the care sector and I find I gravitate to communities of people with shared experiences. As a teenager and young man I found this in the boxing gym, but now I find it in the training community I am part of, called Strength&. When I reach a low point, getting fit again is always key to recovery, my physical health goes hand in hand with my mental health. I have a network at the gym, people I confide in. I know everyone there has suffered in some way or another. We don’t have deep conversations about it, but we’re all aware and we check in with one another. It can be as simple as one of the guys or girls going “hey, are you ok?” and me going “no, actually, I’m not” and them saying “do you want a hug?” and me going “yes, I’ll take that hug.” It’s about knowing they are there. That for me is more valuable and effective than any counselling service could be.
Do you have any other tactics for looking after your mental health?
I also find writing and art to be a cathartic process, both books were tough to put down, but doing it helped me, as did creating paintings of the people I have known from the system and using art to express my emotions and experiences. When I am painting I can lock myself in my shed for 12 hours and just immerse myself. It improves my state of mind, blocks out negative thoughts and whatever I create in that state of immersion becomes an achievement.
What barriers did you find to speaking up about your mental health and how did you overcome them?
Bravado has always been an obstacle. When I was younger I was considered tough and people respected me because of that. I was scared to feel vulnerable around people who respected me. I thought that if I opened up about my mental health, they’d have something on me and my public perception was tarnished. But as I have grown and especially through the process of sharing my story in Damaged I have learned that vulnerability can be a strength and it can be freeing
Because you have opened up about your personal story, you are asked about it frequently, how does going over past trauma affect you?
There are things that bring my trauma to the surface and that trigger my anxiety. I still sometimes have panic attacks when I go back to Halifax. Talking about the past has a huge impact too. There are some things in the first book that I felt uncomfortable talking about. I still do, but having it out there lifted the weight of expectation on me to be this tough guy the people – including myself – had always perceived. Some things, when I am asked about in interviews, still bring me to tears. I’d rather not talk about them, but if there’s a chance me speaking about them could help someone, I’ll do it. I don’t think people really understand the after effects though.
I spoke about my story at a conference in Wales, it was the first time in many months that I’d had to, and I just had a complete meltdown after it. I was exhausted and it felt like a really bad hangover. I was meant to be doing some work, but I just had to put my laptop down and rest. I couldn’t even train, which is huge for me. It took me two days before I could get back in the gym. All that said, I think I am getting better at drawing my boundaries. If it’s going to have an impact, I’ll talk about it. If it’s just to draw out juicy or shocking details with no purpose I will say no. Survivors, people with lived experience should never be manipulated into talking about things they don’t want to.
What did you find most useful on your personal mental health journey?
The gym and just looking at different therapeutic approaches. Going out walking, sitting in cafes and enjoying a coffee. Finding happiness in trivial moments is a huge part of how I cope with the world. Ten minutes of total silence, small conversations, inconsequential text messages, they make all the difference. I have a local coffee shop that just makes me happy. The table I always sit on, the plant, the waiter that doesn’t bother me. It’s a small thing, but vital. You have to find what makes you happy.
In your professional experience, what is the situation with mental health support access for young people in care.
Almost all of the kids I work with would benefit from support with their mental health. For some, it’s far more serious than that. I have one young person who hasn’t left their bedroom in a long time, they just won’t leave and there’s no real help available for them. Counselling costs £60 per hour in some cases and the authorities don’t have the budget and the young people don’t either. The problem really is on a different level. Yes, they can get their 6 free CAMHS sessions, but that doesn’t scratch the surface of the problems they are facing. Kids are dying and the care system has to rely on underfunded and overwhelmed charities.
What changes do you think need to be made?
We need to listen to people with lived experience, take the commercial out of the equation and make mental health support more accessible within the care sector. There needs to be more funding and support from central government, but we also need to look for more innovative and new solutions. The old way isn’t working, so why keep pushing in that direction?
There also needs to be more unity in the care sector, to strengthen it and knowledge of mental health should be mandatory. Professionals need to keep showing up for the kids in their care. They need to listen, believe and fight for them, even if that support is being brushed off. Mental health should also be spoken about openly and in a non-detrimental, non-judgemental way. I suffer with mental health. It’s hard to say but important to share.
What were the moments of hope for you, in your own mental health journey?
Any moments where my voice is powerful and being heard, whether that’s through my books, on advisory boards or at conferences. That gives me hope, not just for me, but for others like me. We are being heard. I like to galvanise people around me, invigorate them – once people hear these stories they want to get on board. They want to help. They want to make change. They believe that change can happen. That fills me with hope.
What advice would you give to someone struggling with their mental health?
A Lot of the young people I work with say to me ‘I’ve got nothing, no parents, what’s the point?’. I tell them that there are millionaires who are depressed . Your depression, your mental health issues, they are not preordained by your circumstances. It’s hard, but there is hope. For anyone struggling I would say don’t let it control you. Talk, seek help, don’t be afraid to question the way you are feeling, to say it. If you feel down, call it out, get it out there in a safe environment.
If you, today, could speak to yourself at your lowest point, what would you tell yourself?
That it’s going to be ok. It’s going to be a tough path full of debris and rubble, but you will get through it to the smooth end. I know from experience that when you’re young and feeling that way, it’s so difficult to see so far in the future, but nothing lasts forever.
Chris’ books Damaged and the State of It are available now from all good bookstores.