An ex-fire fighter from South Molton is speaking out about mental health and living with paranoid schizophrenia, as part of our Let’s Talk About It campaign.

James Wooldridge is a 50-year-old ex-firefighter who lives in South Molton with his wife Lesley.

You wouldn’t know to look at him, but James is a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, and only a few months ago came out of a stay at a mental health ward.

“When I was first diagnosed, as a teenager, my parents were told I’d never work again, or manage to have a relationship,” said James.

“I think I spent the next 30 years trying to prove those people wrong – and I like to think I have succeeded.”

Let's Talk About It - the North Devon Gazette's campaign on mental health.Let's Talk About It - the North Devon Gazette's campaign on mental health.

James’ condition – and he has been diagnosed with many – may seem scary to some, but to him it has helped him inspire others.

“The latest diagnosis I have had is of bipolar schizoaffective disorder, but I don’t pay much attention to the label,” said James.

“I know I have a condition that makes things seem different to how I would normally, or how other people see them.

“Often people view a mental health issue as a sign of weakness, but I think it shows we have been trying to be so strong for so long and then something gives.”

James openly speaks about his condition; about the manic highs he experiences and how he has been forcibly injected more than 20 times.

“It feels like a lot of my life has been documented in other people’s notebooks,” he said.

“You feel your life belongs to other people; you always feel you have to give your most inner fears and joys to everybody.”

But James has not let living with a mental health condition be a barrier – and the fact he has never been out of full-time employment is something of which he is fiercely proud.

After working as a retained firefighter for eight years, James began working for the campaign Time To Change, which challenges mental health stigma.

He is currently managing director of Recovery Devon and also runs Positive Notions, where he gives motivational talks and support.

“I think some people fall into a trap of self discrimination,” said James.

“They end up saying ‘no employer is going to take a second look at me; what’s the point?’.

“But they need to realise they are holding themselves back; I think the biggest barrier to my recovery has been me.”

James is supporting our Let’s Talk About It Campaign by opening up about his experiences.

He added: “The campaign is great because the best way to change stigma and discrimination is with increased understanding.

“More people are seeking support services and it’s putting extra strain on them, but that’s not an argument to say we shouldn’t talk about it.

“I don’t feel any sense of shame about my condition; I’m always very open and that suits me and my personality.”

Recovery Devon hosts events

Recovery Devon – of which James Wooldridge is the managing director – is holding a celebration day in Exeter on October 10.

The community organisation delivers funding to many projects to help people with mental health issues lead meaningful lives and recoveries.

These include the Lions Barber Collective, which raises awareness of suicide among men, and Happy To Share cards, for people to indicate they’re happy to share their table at a cafe.

Anyone is invited to the event at Exeter City FC between 10am - 3.30pm.

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