North West Evening Mail Home Features Barrow woman, 20, tells of battle with mental health issues

SINCE opening in 2006, Self Harm Awareness for the Furness Area has seen an increasing demand for its help, and is now preparing to takes its services county-wide. Today, two women with first-hand experience of the value of SAFA’s work share their stories with EMMA PRESTON

emma prestonJUST four years ago, Kelly Dickinson’s life was spiralling out of control. Anorexia and bulimia had seen her weight drop to just five stones, and the Barrow teenager was admitted to an adolescent mental health unit in Manchester, miles from her Kent Street home.

Then just 16, she struggled with her weight-gain treatment and found an unhealthy and dangerous way to cope.

Now 20, Kelly explains: “It got to a point where I was cutting myself every day.

“When I spoke to them about it, they said it is a pattern they do see occur. Because they’re taking the control away from you in a way, you’re finding a way to compensate.”

Kelly’s self-harm saw her hospitalised several times, as she did serious damage to her arms and legs.

SHARING HER STORY Natasha Kroger-Wyllie, right, with Emma Preston

After four months of this, she recalls: “I was allowed to come home for a day – and this makes you think how you must have been in a totally different state of mind because it wouldn’t even go through my head now – but I bought a craft knife and took it back to the hospital with me.

“I needed 25 stitches in my arm. That’s the moment when I thought, ‘It’s getting out of control’. It hit me how bad it had gotten and it scared me.”

When Kelly was discharged after nine months in Manchester, both problems continued as she struggled to access ongoing support.

“If I’d lived in Manchester,” she explains, “they’ve got the groups there. You can keep going back. But because I was 100 miles away I was cut off.”

Fortunately for Kelly, she found Self Harm Awareness for the Furness Area, and has received weekly counselling from the charity since April 2010.

Today the beautiful, charming young woman in front of me is a world away from the troubled youngster she describes.

She says: “Within the first year, I stopped cutting myself altogether.

“There are still days I struggle with how I look and what I eat but, compared to a couple of years ago, it’s amazing.

“I don’t think you ever completely recover, I think it’s always going to be a part of me. But there has been a big change. They’ve been a lifesaver.”

Now just a week from finishing counselling, Kelly is set to volunteer for SAFA. She will start by helping out around Heron House, the charity’s Duke Street base, before training to become a counsellor herself.

Asked what that means to her, her eyes fill with tears.

“That’s the only thing that’s kept me going,” she admits, “the thought that I can actually help someone in that situation.

“People should never be scared to get help. I had friends in hospital who’ve actually died since, and it shouldn’t be like that. I don’t want people to suffer in silence.”

Kelly is one of 340 people helped by SAFA since 2006. The charity receives referrals from GPs and community mental health teams, as well as looking after those who seek help directly.

Chief executive, Cindy Daltioni, says her four full-time staff, 12 bank counsellors and around eight volunteers work tirelessly.

“We’re restructuring now,” she tells me, “we’re taking on bigger caseloads. We’ll be looking at increasing staff levels, but it’s up to us to find the funding for that.

“I am proud of what we’ve achieved. It’s grown from this little sapling to this huge oak.”

Cindy feels the increase in demand could be due to more people being aware of the charity and being more willing to admit their problems.

“Self-harm is any behaviour we use to cope to deal with life’s issues that has a negative impact on us, physically or mentally,” she explains. “We’ve all done it in some way.”

Once a small Barrow-based service, SAFA now operates throughout the South Lakes and is due to go county-wide from March.

One woman who has benefited from the charity’s ability to reach beyond the Furness peninsula is Natasha Kroger-Wyllie. For five months, the 22-year-old has been visited by a counsellor near her home in Kendal once a week.

Her problems came to a head when, having struggled with anorexia and binge-eating since she was 15, she went to university in Chester.

Her weight dropped dramatically and, having been hospitalised after not eating or drinking for a week, she moved home after three months. From then on, life was a constant blur of hospital admissions as she carried on starving herself.

Natasha explains: “I felt a lot of shame and embarrassment at coming home, on top of all the feelings I’d already been dealing with.

“My mood deteriorated towards being suicidal.”

After being admitted to a psychiatric unit, Natasha’s weight dropped further. Things became so bad she was sectioned and spent eight months in a Manchester treatment centre.

“In a way, it made it worse,” she tells me. The people surrounding you are completely unhealthy, but I would look at them and think, ‘that’s what I should be’.

“It put the idea in my head that you could get that bad and still be alive.”

Natasha returned home when she was 19, but continued to struggle. An unhealthy relationship, deciding to move out on her own and being without anyone who understood her condition all took their toll. Eventually she found SAFA and is already reaping the benefits of their support.

“In our area, there really isn’t any specialist help for people with these kinds of problems,” she says.

“But my SAFA counsellor, she’s experienced her own issues, and I think that’s what made it work. It’s only now I’m here looking back that I see how far I’ve come.”

Natasha has shared her story in a bid to raise awareness and drum up support for SAFA as it continues to stretch its services even further afield.

She said: “The need for it is just huge, there really is not enough in our area.

“It, or services like it, need to be more widely available. SAFA’s the best thing that’s happened to me since all this started. I think it’s amazing.”