‘I want to show people you can get back on track’

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John Dennis seems remarkably relaxed for someone facing more than a month of isolation in a treacherous and icy wasteland.

Poring over a map of Antarctica on his dining room table, the Bishop’s Waltham dad casually points out the deadly crevasse fields he will encounter.

Some of these glacial cracks are miles deep – fall in one and he may never resurface.

John even jokes and laughs when he talks about the life-saving equipment he’ll be dragging along on a trusty sled.

‘It’s just me, my tent, my sleeping bag and a couple of pairs of underwear,’ he declares.

And no, there won’t be polar bears – they only live in the Arctic . ‘If I encounter one of those I’ve got myself horribly lost,’ he laughs.

Of course John admits that his lone expedition across the world’s most barren landscape is ‘pretty scary’.

And he wouldn’t call himself intrepid – more compelled, focused and utterly determined.

John is planning to embark on his 730-mile trek to the South Pole to raise money and awareness for mental health charities and prove that someone with a mental illness can come back from the brink.

It was only a year ago that the 39-year-old was in a state of mind as deep, dark and terrifying as one of those crevasses.

Diagnosed with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, he found it hard to surface from his bed and would shake with anxiety if he had to leave the house.

‘Depression is hard to define, it affects everyone differently. But once it takes hold, it’s pretty dire,’ he says.

‘You don’t have any pure thoughts in your head at all. Everything is negative and it’s being replayed in your mind 100 times a minute.

‘You’re thinking all the time and it’s all negative, nothing positive at all. There’s no logic to the way you’re feeling and you can’t justify why you’re so down.’

So it seems extraordinary that the dad-of-two now has the mental strength to take on such a challenge.

‘That’s why I’m keen to do it,’ explains John. ‘You wouldn’t expect someone who suffers from mental health conditions to do something like this.

‘I want to show people you can do things, you can get back on track.’

Of course, John isn’t expecting others to do anything quite as extreme. But he does want to encourage as much support for people with mental health problems as possible.

‘Through my recovery, I thought “I can’t go through this again, I can’t let people go through this without doing something”. I’ve got to raise awareness.’

He’ll be fundraising for charities Combat Stress, which supports services veterans, and Young Minds, which is dedicated to helping children and young people.

The latter is a cause close to John’s heart. He believes he may have benefitted from the support of such a charity when he was younger.

John was just 17 and growing up in New Zealand when his dad committed suicide.

He says he never really confronted his feelings during that painful time.

‘I rebelled, getting drunk and being stupid. People thought I didn’t care but I was drinking away the pain. I was hiding from everything.’

Then last year, the design consultant gradually became depressed.

He says it may have been triggered by work stresses, but believes the causes were rooted in the past.

‘All of a sudden I was having thoughts that I hadn’t had for 20 years.’

John now wants to reach out to others with depression and is particularly concerned for men, who he feels are far less likely to access support.

‘I know it’s a modern world and everything, but the mindset of a man is still to try and prove they’re the strong one. Switching that off and admitting to feeling poorly and vulnerable is a difficult thing to do.’

According to charity the Mental Health Foundation, women are more likely to be treated for a mental health problem than men but it is believed men are less inclined to seek help.

‘Women also talk to their friends more,’ says John.

‘And that’s what I’d say to anyone. You’d be surprised how your hardest buddy, the one that gives you the most stick, is the one who says “all right mate, how are we going to deal with this?”’

But John received the most support from his wife Heidi and says he wouldn’t have coped without her.

Now she and their children – Aaron, nine, and Daisy, seven – are coming to terms with dad’s trip. The whole family are nervous but very excited.

‘It’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was young,’ explains John.

‘But it was a lot for Heidi to take on board. I did all the research and presented it as a business case to her, printed documents and everything.’

He’s making himself as safe as possible with preparation and train-
ing leading up to the November expedition.

John and the children can frequently be seen around Bishop’s Waltham dragging a tyre that acts as the sled.

Psychological preparation is something else, but John feels ready to cope with the isolation.

Counselling sessions have taught him to recognise the danger signs and triggers.

‘I don’t think the depression will leave but I can manage it. I think it has made me stronger,’ he says calmly, turning his attention back to the map and his South Pole goal.

Only 19 people have trekked to the South Pole solo.

John Dennis is hoping the journey will take him less than 37 days. During that time he’ll be in contact with expedition specialists ANI at an Antarctic base camp.

But he’ll be facing crevasse fields and whiteouts (where blizzards distort orientation) completely alone.

He’ll also experience the beauty of mountain ranges and ice stretching to the horizon in total isolation.

Temperatures range between -10 and -30 C. John is taking plenty of specialist equipment and receiving training from the University of Portsmouth in dealing with hypothermia and making good choices when the mind is disorientated. To support the trip or John’s chosen charities visit expedition-d2e.org or facebook.com/expd2e.

It’s been reported that there has been a ‘significant increase’ in the number of UK veterans of the Afghanistan conflict seeking mental health treatment.

The charity Combat Stress, which John Dennis is raising money for, said it had received a 57 per cent rise in referrals between 2012 and 2013.

Combat Stress offers treatment and welfare support to services veterans suffering depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

PTSD is an anxiety disorder which can develop immediately after frightening or distressing events or weeks, months or even years later.

For information visit combatstress.org.uk.

Young Minds aims to improve the emotional wellbeing of young people by campaigning, researching and influencing policy and practice. It also operates a helpline for parents, professionals and young people (0808 802 5544).

Visit youngminds.org,uk for information.