Caretaker who ‘didn’t open his curtains for eight years’ now supports colleagues as a Mental Health Champion

Published on 10/05/2021

An L&Q caretaker who didn’t open his curtains for eight years after his mother passed away is now supporting his colleagues as a Mental Health Champion.

Alex Cooper, from Peckham, South London, joined the housing association in 2019 as a non-residential caretaker, after suffering with his mental health for nearly two decades.

Just weeks into his new job, he opened up to his manager about his struggles and says he received so much support that he was inspired to do the same for his colleagues.

He said: “I’ve suffered depression for most of my life.

“It got worse 20 years ago when my mum passed away. I was really lost. I didn’t open my curtains for about eight years.

“It came to the point where I thought I just can’t do anymore, so I talked to my dad about it.

“It surprised the hell out of him. I also told my friends. Some ran for the hills, some called up, some showed up offering help.

“I wasn’t working at the time, but I started volunteering at the library. Through that I got a job with children with special educational needs.

“I was there for about two years and they were very supportive of my mental health, because I had opened up. I realised it was good to talk, so I kept talking.”

Alex had been trying to get counselling to help with his mental health, but says the process was a “nightmare.”

Eventually he accepted group sessions, as the waiting time was much shorter.

The day he was offered a job at L&Q, he had reported his sister missing. Tragically, she was later found dead.

“I started the job a week later so I was in the worst place I possibly could be, starting this job. I have no idea how I did it,” he continued.

“Then, I was talking to my new manager, Gary Baker, and I noticed he was wearing a Mental Health Champion lanyard. I didn’t know whether to talk about my experience.

“It’s not always something you want to admit to. But I told him, and he was really understanding and so supportive.

“He said that whenever the counselling sessions were, he would make sure I had time off to go to them. It was a great help, as I was sorting funeral arrangements and working every day.

“Gary called on me to check in regularly. One day I was really bad and he said to come into the office so we could talk. So we did, and I was very candid. It was helpful that someone felt what I was feeling. It gave me another perspective.”

L&Q introduced a Mental Health Champions programme in 2018, and also signed a Time to Change pledge in 2019, committing to change the way mental health is thought about in the workplace.

Mental Health Champions – of which there are 28 throughout the organisation – receive specialist mental health training and are available to support any colleague, by talking or listening to them or recommending external services.

They also work to drive awareness within their departments.

“Gary also advised me to contact the Employee Assistance Programme,” Alex said.

“I called them one day and had a counselling session. I went on to have nine sessions. Considering how much I had struggled to get counselling outside of L&Q, it’s amazing. It really helped.

“Recently I was struggling, and I called them at 8am and was given counselling.”

The Employee Assistance Programme is a 24-hour telephone service which supports colleagues through day-to-day challenges.

“I decided to become a Mental Health Champion myself, because I have been there. I understand the feeling. It’s about trying to find a way to deal with it,” Alex, who also writes poetry, said.

“I still struggle with it now, so I am very supportive of anyone who is struggling.

“Before when I was struggling, I would take days off because I couldn’t face it. I haven’t taken any days off because of my mental health since I’ve been at L&Q. I’ve designed a programme in the morning of exercise, affirmations and self-help books. I think that’s really important. It doesn’t answer every question, but it helps.

“I still have bad days, but they’re more ‘grey’ days now.

“Becoming a Mental Health Champion has helped me understand what I am going through myself, and on different levels now. You’re never going to be happy 24/7. I’ve learnt that some people can have bad days, for others it can last longer.

“It’s good to talk. Especially now when everyone is at home. There are lots of internalised feelings. I feel privileged to be leaving my home for work.

“We received a two-day training course with Mental Health First Aid England. It was excellent. They taught us the importance of talking but also of listening. I’ve even utilised the training with a friend of mine.

“I really encourage colleagues to reach out to Mental Health Champions.”