Firefighter bravely shares his mental health story ahead of 250km mega marathon challenge

man smiling marathon start line

James (L) hopes to tackle the 156 mile 'ultra' Marathon des Sables later this year. - Credit: James Bull

A Hertfordshire-based firefighter with 20 years' experience has bravely shared his story of battling trauma, ahead of a 250km 'ultra marathon' - which he hopes will raise thousands of pounds for mental health charities.

James Bull is currently Station Commander at Hitchin and Royston Fire Stations, and has worked for the Herts Fire and Rescue Service for 20 years.

James and his team are often thrown into dangerous situations at a moment's notice. On one hand, he says the job lets him see the "best of humanity", but at other times it has pushed him headfirst into "the worst tragedies".

"Of course it all builds up - PTSD, depression, paranoia and anxiety," James says.

"In 2006, I had a breakdown. It changes who you are, and affects every part of your life.

"No-one knew about it, I felt like I couldn't tell anyone apart from my closest family and friends. At that time, I was not in the right place to properly seek recovery and get better."

For years, James felt like he couldn't share his story - for fear of being reprimanded by peers and because mental health was still such a taboo.

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According to their 2019 Blue Light support programme, figures from national mental health charity MIND indicate "mental health, stress and wellbeing remain significant issues for the emergency services."

But, in 2017 something changed for James, and he made the decision to seek out counselling. He explained that this was the start of his journey towards recovery.

Man smiling son and wife

James and his family. - Credit: James Bull

"I had just started a family, and I was determined to seek help for them. I wanted my son to grow up with his dad around," he continued.

"I'm not fully there yet, but I'm making good progress.

"We have all the best technology in the world to treat physical injuries, but for too long we haven't realised that mental health needs to be treated in the same way, like an injury.

"I am yet to meet someone serving who isn't damaged in some way.

"We at the fire service are getting much better at helping with mental health compared to when I first joined. We're able to spot the signs and intervene early now with the guys and the girls if they're struggling, which is great."

But counselling hasn't been his sole remedy. Alongside therapy, James spends hours exercising and working out each day, something he calls his "extra medicine".

In the wake of sharing his story, James is also aiming to raise thousands of pounds for The Fire Fighters Charity and awareness of mental health in the emergency services.

So he's taking on the "toughest foot race on Earth" - The Marathon Des Sables in Morocco.

Starting in the gruelling Sahara Desert, participants race to a finish line that is more than 150 miles away, traversing sand-filled dunes and battling temperatures of 50°C en route. All in all, they run the approximate distance of six marathons over a week.

The marathon has already been postponed multiple times thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, but James is hoping that by this October he will be given the green light to go ahead.

"I'm aware that most people think I'm completely bonkers for doing this," James says with a smile.

"But for me, it's the ultimate challenge. It will be a therapeutic experience and a chance for me to exorcise some demons."

runner competes in ultramarathon

James (R) has always been interested in long distance and endurance runs. - Credit: James Bull

James is no stranger to endurance challenges and he says they've become "synonymous" with him over the years, despite his supportive wife's growing protests.

"Of course she doesn't want me to put myself in danger, it's not an easy challenge that's for sure. But this has been a long-term goal for me and we've come to a compromise."

Training for the Marathon des Sables is no simple feat - James has 12 sessions a week, four of them weight lifting and eight are endurance and cardio preparation.

He's also sponsored by leading brands such as Precision Hydration, Sundried and Go Vox, a mental health online platform. 

James' efforts will be shared in a documentary, set for release after the marathon, by Hide & Seek Media - with them recording him at home, work, during training and at 'Ultramarathons' over the last few years.

James adds: "You've got to be prepared for everything. One thing I keep hearing about the Marathon des Sables is: The person who goes out to the desert is different to the one that comes back."

"I think now, more than ever, mental health is a topic we have to talk about. And I hope I'm able to do my part with this challenge."

For more information about James' challenge, or to donate, visit justgiving.com/fundraising/james-rossano-bull

The Samaritans are available to help 24/7, with no charge. Call 116 123 if you need to talk.

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