QPR and Mental Health: My Story

Originally published on White Noise

September 2018

Each year, QPR in the Community Trust  touches the lives of over 20,000 people. One of those was James Calling, who credits the Trust for saving his life after he attempted suicide. James got in touch to share his story. I went to meet him.

This interview contains in-depth coverage of suicide.

A young man with an array of beautiful tattoos on both arms is sat outside the BBC offices in White City. He’s got 18 in total: five roses (his dad’s favourite flower), rosary beads as a tribute to his maternal grandparents and Catholic upbringing, as well as the Latin quote “morte et dabo” which translates as “dead and gone.” His latest addition is a series of strikes at the back of his ear to commemorate each year since his dad passed.

One of the most striking, perhaps, is the word “broken” just above his Adam’s apple. He explains: “Being broken isn’t bad. After everything, I’m able to love a lot more. I try not to judge as much as I would have. I look at the world through clearer eyes.”

James Casling’s story has been well documented. He appeared on the BBC to tell the story of how his life changed on his 15th birthday, when his dad took his own life. In the years that followed, James attempted suicide on several occasions, and was sectioned to the Park Royal Mental Health Centre three weeks after his 18th birthday. He credits QPR for saving his life. After being introduced to the team’s Healthy Kickers football therapy programme, he’s become the top goal scorer for three seasons in a row, and gone on to coach children with disabilities.

I’m interested to know why football turned his life around. “I didn’t want [mental illness] to be my legacy. I’ve been on national television and said I have a mental illness; it’s nothing to be ashamed of. My family know that I’ve been a good person and helped people. It gave me something to make them proud. That’s all I wanted.”

In 2013, James was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Sufferers struggle to cope with strong emotions, which can lead to self-harming and suicidal thoughts, both of which he knows too well. “It feels hell, but then some days it feels like its heaven,” James explains. “There’s no in between. I’m always happy or I’m always sad. I’m always feeling too much emotion or too little.”

Although the disorder affects 1 in 100 people and seems to affect both genders equally, men are less likely to be diagnosed, according to Rethink. He says, “A boy being emotionally unstable is something that no one really talks about. They think, ‘Oh you’re a boy, you should man up.’… The last time I checked, 75% of people [diagnosed] with BPD are female. It’s being a male in a female’s world.” The 23-year-old shares one of its emotional symptoms. “I cry at little things, I cry quite a lot. I can’t control it. Not many men will say they cry. If I watch a video of me, I cry because all I can see is the pain.”

After being admitted to Park Royal Mental Health centre aged 18, James spent three months there. “I was surrounded by older people who’d suffered their whole lives and I couldn’t escape that.” It was a steep learning curve. “Some of the adults were aggressive and violent and constantly getting restrained. It opened my eyes up to reality. Before I went there, I didn’t love myself. I didn’t care about my wellbeing. But I learnt to love myself and that the darkness does end at some stage.”

His next statement almost seems telepathic, just as I’ve been thinking how mature he is for the duration of our conversation. “People say to me: ‘You’ve got the knowledge of someone who’s a hundred and has lived their whole life.’ I haven’t matured through age, love or happiness. I’ve matured because of pain.”

James hones in on the importance of mental illness awareness, especially in men. His dad, for instance, never sought help: “Knowing him, he probably ignored it and pretended it never existed, but it cost him his life.” The following statistics shock me. “You don’t see that suicide is the biggest killer for men under 45. I learnt in Park Royal that it’s okay to talk. How many men must die before someone stands up and says: let’s do something about it? Suicide destroys someone before it kills them. Someone taking their own life is the last step.”

Over the last five years, James has learnt coping mechanisms: working, riding his motorbike and sitting out the bad thoughts. There’s one friend that’s stood by James for the last eight years, who he visits almost daily, his ‘little brother’. He says, “He got a motorbike for his 18th birthday and I’d always wanted one. My dad had one. That was one thing we bonded over.” The pair are known to spend 16 to 17 hours a day on their motorbikes together. “There were times when we didn’t know where we were riding. He would always look over his shoulder and see that I’m behind him and I’d look in front and he always there.”

While James admits that he still feels the same as he did eight years ago, but there’s a pivotal difference: “I can manage it better. If I went to a cash machine and couldn’t get money, that would make me feel down and I’d go and do stupid stuff to myself. But now, I’m more at peace with myself.” He explains his personal philosophy: “It sounds clichéd, but I understand that everything happens for a reason. Why would I get upset about something I cannot change? The struggles you face today are the strengths you have tomorrow.” What does the future look like? “If I can make someone smile, then all the pain and misery I’ve been through is worth it. We need more love in the world, there’s enough bad as it is. If I’m still here in five years, that’s all I can dream.”

If you or someone you know is in need of mental health support, Time to Change and Mind have good resources for UK-based organisations. More info about QPR’s Healthy Kickers programme is here.