The tragic death of Lisburn man Robbie Fleming, who took his own life just a few weeks ago, has galvanised the men of the local community to come together to offer support to anyone struggling with mental health issues and their message is clear - you are not alone.
Robbie’s friends were shocked by the death of the vibrant young 26-year-old and they are determined that no one else will be left feeling that they have nowhere to turn, that there is no-one to talk to and no other way out.
Robbie Patterson, one of Robbie Fleming’s close friends, together with Paul Hines and a number of men in the Lisburn area, have come together to form ‘STARS’, Standing Together and Removing Silence.
The aim of the group is to encourage people to speak out if they are struggling with their mental health. They are getting together initially with football clubs in Lisburn with the hope of having at least one mental health champion in each club that can look out for signs that someone is having a difficult time and let them know that there is someone there they can talk to.
“Both myself and Paul Hines have had family members and friends affected by suicide over the last five years and we know what it feels like,” explained Robbie, who is treasurer of the newly formed STARS,
“Robbie Fleming was well known and he was a friend. It was a massive shock when I found out. I was in work. My heart sank and my stomach started churning. We felt that if we had known we could have got him to reach out.
“No family should have to go through that and after it happens you are left asking ‘why, why why’. They are three simple letters but you are never going to get an answer.
“I would say to anyone, just open up and talk. You spend most of your time with friends and you talk about the stupidest stuff but you need to just open up about important things because it could save your life. Your friends are your friends for a reason and they are there to listen.
“There had been ideas of doing something like this floating around for a while and it is sad that it has taken something as big as this to get the group started but we are determined to get the message out there that you are not on your own. Even if we can help to save one life that will make a massive difference.”
Chairman of STARS, Paul Hines, continued: “The aim at the start is to get every football club in Lisburn on board. There are 21 clubs from Hillsborough through to Taughmonagh playing in the South Antrim League so we decided to start there.
“We will be getting people training to spot danger signs and to encourage changes in attitudes.
“It isn’t going to be football based but we went to them as a starting point as we want to reach out to all the men in Lisburn.
“However, in the long term it won’t just be about football clubs, we will reach out to community groups in Lisburn as well.
“We have already had offers of help and support from teachers, counsellors and people who have struggled with mental health problems themselves.
“The response has been fantastic. It has really struck a chord with people.”
The first event the group have planned to raise awareness of their work and the importance of speaking out about mental health, will take place at Hillsborough Forest Park during the early hours of Saturday, June 23.
The group is inviting everyone to come along to the park at 3.30am and take the walk from ‘Darkness into Light’.
“There have been Darkness Into Light events in Belfast but this will be the first time in Lisburn,” continued Paul. “We will meet in the car park at Hillsborough Forest Park at 3.30am when it is dark and walk through the forest until the sun comes up. The idea is that people can feel that they are in a very dark place and that no one is with them so we want to reach out the hand of friendship and get them to the light.”
“It will be an amazing experience and hopefully we can get the message out to people that they can get through this.”
Everyone is invited to come along to the Darkness Into Light walk in Hillsborough and the organisers are encouraging people to bring lights, torches, banners, and wear brightly coloured T-shirts as well.
“We want to get the message out there - you are not alone in this,” added Paul.
Encouraging as many people as possible to get involved, Robbie added: “Let’s remove the stigma that surrounds mental health, let’s remove the walls and barriers, let’s remove the silence.”
Lagan Valley MLA Robbie Butler, who was a friend of Robbie Fleming and UUP spokesperson for Mental Health, said he gave his whole-hearted support to the men who are determined to make a difference.
“Suicide and poor mental health are regrettably two areas which Northern Ireland sadly sits at the top of the statistical table in the UK,” explained Mr Butler, “For a multiplicity of reasons there are more people in Northern Ireland suffering from depression, anxiety, PTSD and personality disorders with suicide rates totally and unacceptably on the rise.
“Just a number of days ago Lisburn was plunged into a state of grief when a dear friend of many passed away.
“Robbie Fleming was a personal friend of mine, and to witness the outpouring of sadness and loss at his untimely death was testimony to his popularity and the rallying of support to his family has sparked hope.
“A number of Robbie’s close friends have established a ‘mental well-being and suicide prevention’ group called STARS, who through their football community are seeking to establish mental health champions in all of the local football teams
“On a personal and professional level I am fully behind the guys and using my role as the Mental Health spokesperson for the UUP will bring any and all influence to bear in support and expansion of the goals of the group.”
Lisburn suicide support charity Horizons, which provides practical, confidential support for anyone affected by suicide, have also given their full support to the new initiative.
“Horizons was formed about eight years ago and at the moment it is more of a support for families who have been bereaved,” explained chairman Ian McAllister. “However there is a real need for prevention and intervention and we will be fully behind the STARS initiative to prove whatever support and assistance is needed.
“It is a fantastic idea and we are completely behind it.”
Friends of Robbie Fleming have also organised a memorial day at Lower Maze Football Club on Saturday July 21. There will be lots going on during the day, including a car show, bouncy castle, face painting, balloon modelling and plenty of musical entertainment as well.
Find out more about the event and how you can get involved on Facebook by searching for ‘Robbie Fleming Memorial Day 21st July’. Anyone who would like to contact STARS can email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For further information on the work of Horizons, log onto http://horizonslisburn.org/.