‘I lived life to the max until my motorbike crash - sport has helped me to rebuild it again’
Gary Dawson, who was seriously injured in a crash at 19, has shared his story as a report to Parliament shows many people with life-changing injuries are still not receiving any help.
A man from Greater Manchester who was paralysed from the waist down in a motorcycle accident aged just 19 has spoken of the importance of mental health support after a life-changing injury.
Gary Dawson, from Oldham, shared the story of his spinal cord injury as a report to Parliament shows there are widespread gaps in support for people in the same position.
Shocking stats suggest only a minority of people with spinal cord injuries receive mental health support and even if they do many drop out because they do not feel it is suitable.
Gary said his mental health spiralled into a dark place as he tried to come to terms with spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair before speaking about how his GP and a disability sports club helped him.
What happened to Gary?
Gary said that as a 19-year-old he was “living life to the max”, riding his sports motorbike to and from the job he loved as an electrician.
That, though, came to a sudden end when he was involved in an accident which left him paralysed.
Gary, who is now 37, said: “There’s that initial moment of thinking ‘this is bad’ and realising this isn’t just your average fall or incident.
“The reality of the situation is quite dire, to the point where you start thinking that this is too much, too hard and you can’t do it.
“People are saying you will never walk again and will be reliant on a wheelchair.”
Gary said that the biggest shock came when he moved out of NHS rehabilitation and back into the outside world.
He said: “In rehab you are so protected from the outside world. You live in this NHS bubble of security and become as independent as you can be.
“When you are discharged you soon realise that your environment isn’t accessible. The outside world is not adapted and almost not ready for you.
“Society still isn’t overly accepting or accommodating of disability. When you go home you realise that previously you fitted in and now you don’t.
“You face access issues, you can’t get accommodation because of things like stairs or you face broken flags, dog dirt and adverse camber on the pavement.
“You are surrounded by able-bodied people, which is a constant reminder of what you have lost.
“People ask you the most sensitive questions about what happened to you, asking you to relive the darkest day of your life for their curiosity. You become public property in a wheelchair.
“You have well-meaning and well-wishing family and friends but they don’t really understand the complexity of what it’s like to have a spinal cord injury.
“You are battling the demons in your head telling you that you are different and weak.”
‘I was led down to a very dark place’
Gary’s struggles following his discharge led to him having to face some of the toughest moments of his life, including experiencing suicidal thoughts.
He said: “I hid behind my smile and my confidence but I was abusing my body through alcohol and cannabis as well as self-harming.
“It got to the point where I tried to take my own life a number of times.
“Nobody had a clue. Nobody knew what was going on in my head.
“One of the reasons I’ve always told my story is that I didn’t get access to support, and it led me down a very dark place.”
The road to recovery led through the GP and disability sport
Gary finally opened up to his GP about how he was struggling and was prescribed anti-depressants.
He said this enabled him to refocus, helping him to sleep better so he had more energy to face each day.
He eventually got his driving licence, giving him more independence and freedom to do what he wanted at his own pace.
He also discovered disability sport, which has played a huge role in his life.
Originally starting out with the now-disbanded Bury Blue Devils, he plays wheelchair basketball for the Owls as a guard.
He was part of the Great Britain programme and while he ultimately didn’t make the national squad has played alongside a number of stars who have become household names through playing at the Paralympics.
He spoke about the importance of the sport he has now been playing for 17 years.
He said: “I was back with my peers, people who understood the complexities of disability, losing your confidence, your self-esteem, your position in the world.
“They had already reintegrated and had meaning to their lives.
“Being with them I was talking to them about how they worked, went on holiday, had relationships. It gave me the confidence to start living again.”
After missing out on London 2012 Gary started working with the Spinal Injuries Association (SIA), beginning as a peer support officer talking to people who had just suffered their injuries about the future.
What does the report to Parliament say?
The report has been prepared by the SIA and calls on the Government to make better mental health support available to people with spinal cord injuries and their carers as a matter of urgency.
There are some shocking statistics around gaps in provision.
The SIA estimates that only one-third of people living with a SCI are getting access to mental health support,
And of those, 68% do not feel that support services available are able to meet their needs.
People living with a SCI are also three times more likely to have suicidal thoughts compared to the rest of the population, the SIA suggests.
What does Gary say about the report’s findings?
Gary says “his concerns run deep” about support for people with SCIs and explained how vital it is that those with life-changing injuries are helped and have access to assistance at every step of their journeys.
He said: “The NHS is under so much pressure that often once people have been stabilised physically their mental health gets overlooked.
“The SIA is part of the rehab pathway but we rely on the NHS identifying someone who has an injury and referring them to us. A lot of staff still aren’t aware of the services available from the third sector.
“It’s also important that family and friends understand the situation to help them rebuild their lives.
“Charities can provide additional support, such as someone they can meet for a coffee to talk about how their relationship is failing because they no longer feel like a man or an equal member of the relationship.
“Having that person to talk to is so important.”