Tragic death of Sheffield dad-of-two leads to launch of new support group for men

The tragic death of a popular dad-of-two from Sheffield has led to a Men’s Mental Health Support Group being set up to help other men suffering with mental health issues.

Friday, 5th July 2019, 12:16 pm
A new support group has been set up after Lee Okrasa took his own life

Lee Okrasa, aged 38, took his own life during a holiday with friends in Benidorm last summer – leaving his family and friends heartbroken at his death.

The dad of two had been suffering at the time of his death, with his loved ones unaware of his hidden battle. It was only afterwards that his family learned of issues in his personal life that he was trying to deal with.

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A support group for men with mental health issues has been set up following the suicide of Lee Okrasa. Barry King with the Lee Okrasa Memorila Shield in the meeting room. Picture: Scott Merrylees

Determined for something positive to come from the tragedy, Rachel Harrison, the mother of Lee’s children, with the help and support of his family and friends, launched a support group to help other men struggling with their mental health.

Strong Minds Together, which was launched in May, is a support group dedicated to helping men over the age of 18.

Lee Okrasa

A trained counsellor attends the weekly sessions and anything discussed by the group remains confidential.

In a unique twist on regular support groups, a free football session is run for participants at the end of the meetings.

Based at the FA’s St George’s Park hub in High Green, the idea is to use sport as a way of breaking down barriers.

Different mental health topics based around the needs of the group are discussed before the men move out onto the all-weather pitch outside should they wish to.

Rachel Harrison has set up a new support group for men with mental health issues

The aim is to give men an activity to enjoy, to encourage them to get fit and form friendships, which is hoped will help develop support networks for those who attend the sessions.

Rachel said those behind the support group hope to prevent others from suffering the way Lee did.

Rachel, whose relationship with Lee ended a number of years ago, said the signs of depression were hard to recognise because people can change when in new relationships.

The 35-year-old said: “Many women talk about their feelings and issues that they have, but many men find it difficult to open up.

A new support group for men with mental health issues has been launched in Sheffield

“This group is about giving men that opportunity.”

She added “We did not want to go down the corporate route, we want this to be an informal and a welcoming place where men can come and just sit and listen or talk to others in similar situations who understand how they feel.

“We feel that basing it at St George’s Park has really worked because there are always men here playing football or watching their children play, so they can walk in without anyone raising an eye”.

“There has been so much interest and we have had so many people walking through the door, there was obviously a need for this kind of support.”

Lee’s friend Barry King, 41, who helped set up the group said: “The fact people are coming back proves it is helping.

“Men are brought up in the main not to show signs of weakness, so a lot have spent their lives not talking about what they are going though.

A support group for men with mental health issues has been set up following the suicide of Lee Okrasa. Committee members Rachel Harrison, Barry King, Joe Charles, James Jowitt and John Stevenson. Picture: Scott Merrylees

“Strong Minds Together gives them a chance to talk to people they know will not judge them because they have been through or are going through similar things themselves.”

He said the football session at the end of the group gathering has proved a huge success.

“They might arrive here with feeling down but once they have talked and then played football for an hour afterwards they go away feeling positive, having enjoyed their night,” he added.

“It might be the only time of the week some get out or interact.

“We will never know if the group has ‘saved’ anyone but to have people walking through the door each week and coming back makes us feel that we are making a difference and at least helping a little bit.”

Rachel said: “It is amazing the difference the sessions are making. The men walk onto the pitch feeling one way and come off it feeling totally different.

“It is devastating for all who knew Lee that it took his death for this group to be launched, but something positive has developed now and it is really helping people and making a difference. There has never been a week when nobody has walked through the doors.

“Men will go to their GP or hospital with a broken bone or other illnesses but mental health is often ignored, even though, as we have experienced, it can be terminal. It is a silent killer unfortunately and we are trying to do our bit to prevent any other people losing loved ones as a result.

“Hopefully this group and support network will help people before they seek professional help or while they are waiting for appointments to come through because unfortunately there is often a wait and that could be too long for some people.”

The drop-in group meets at St George’s Park, Pack Horse Lane, High Green, every Tuesday at 7pm.

It is free of charge and refreshments are also complementary.

Lee was well known at St George’s Park through his involvement with Thorncliffe Football Club, which is based at the sports hub and is where his son plays grassroots football.

His friend, Barry, is arranging an annual memorial football tournament in Lee’s name, which will be held at St George’s on Sunday, July 14.

Strong Minds Together has a Facebook page and can be contacted via email for those not yet strong or confident enough to attend a session.

The committee is made up of Rachel and Barry, alongside counsellor Joe Charles and fellow volunteers Kate Smedley, Jordan Lee, John Stevenson and James Jowitt.

Rachel said: "The support group would personally like to thank all the staff, especially Rebecca Powell and Nicola Ellis, at St George’s Park, for all the support they give the group."

To find out more search for Strong Minds Together on Facebook, email [email protected] or follow @strongmindstog1

A support group for men with mental health issues has been set up following the tragic death of Lee Okrasa (Picture: Scott Merrylees)