Kate is a photographer who lives near Cardiff with her family and dog called Bluebell. Her mental health had deteriorated gradually over a decade that saw her battling breast cancer and caring for her mother. But she took a chance on rugby one day, and has been gradually rebuilding her confidence, and ability to enjoy life, ever since.

Kate smiles at the camera from her lounge.

“Two years ago I had a bad breakdown, but it was gradual, over 10 or 15 years. I had stage and grade three breast cancer which had spread to the lymph nodes when my second child was two, which left me terrified.

“My mum was also diagnosed with grade one breast cancer while I was having treatment and then, in 2013, she was re-diagnosed with terminal cancer and I was her sole carer for five years until she died in 2018.

“It all led to the most horrific breakdown in March 2020.

“I cut all my hair off at one point although I barely remember doing it. I went absolutely wild and I nearly lost my family over it. They’ve been fantastic, always staying very close and being there for me and I wouldn’t be here without them.

“I recognised that I was in emotional trouble. I ended up losing an entire network of friends, they didn’t understand and they just disappeared which, again, was traumatic.

"I think I was known as someone who coped – someone who was a good laugh. Sadly, despite protestations, mental health problems are still not socially acceptable."

Kate felt liked everything had collapsed. She knew that she had to do something, but didn’t know what.

Thankfully, she was referred to a project called School of Hard Knocks which, with the support of money raised by Red Nose Day, helps adults with mental health issues improve their wellbeing through sport, counselling and curriculum-based learning.

Although she thought it was the right thing to do, taking that big first step to getting support was hard for Kate.

Kate shares a laugh with her family on a beach.

“Initially I said no because I was anxious, and the idea of going into a group where I may get judged made me fear I’d go backwards. At that point, there was more comfort in going back to what I knew, even though it was so damaging, rather than putting myself out there.

“I did sign up and for the first week of School of Hard Knocks, I could barely get out of my car because I felt so intimidated at the idea of walking into a room full of strangers but, the minute I did, I was overwhelmed by the lack of judgement, the sheer care, generosity and kindness.

"They genuinely want to do the absolute best for you and do whatever they can to help you turn your life around.

“I’d been drowning for such a long time. I had skills there but I didn’t recognise them. I recognised I’d been living by other people’s values and it had gotten to the stage where I didn’t know who I was or what I could do which led to the detrimental anxiety and severe lack of confidence.

“I was introduced to rugby which I’d never played before and found intimidating but the team support and spirit was incredible. I could see this transformation in people, the warmth, the laughter and my real personality started coming out, the quirkiness and ability to see the lighter side of life.

“I remember at one point getting so frustrated because I was so worried that my breast prostheses would come out at any minute and I’d always been ashamed of them. One day, I don’t know where it came from other than the confidence I’d developed, the self-belief, but I told the coach that I wanted to take the prosthesis’s out and she just kindly said that was absolutely fine, not to worry. It was so freeing for me.”

Now, four months after her course ended, Kate has joined a local rugby team, started volunteering for two local charities and is currently working on an exhibition of her photography – a ‘dream’ which, she says, School of Hard Knocks gave her the courage to make come true.

Kate leans against a rugby goal post and smiles at the camera.

“I’ve now joined a local rugby club and they’re a brilliant bunch of people. I play left wing at 51, train twice a week, have played a couple of matches, and I’ve learned how to spin and kick the ball. I’ve realised that of all sports rugby is a game-changer for mental health. We also went to a pottery course with School of Hard Knocks and I’ve now joined a six-week mental health pottery course.

“I’d never written a CV, didn’t feel I’d got anything to say, but seven weeks into the course I wrote a CV as my life had been and was shocked at all the things I’ve achieved that I hadn’t recognised. School of Hard Knocks created a sense of safety for me to go and try scary things which is incredibly powerful.

“School of Hard Knocks is a game-changer, a life-changer. I’ve never been a part of anything that has been quite so powerful. I feel like they scraped me off the floor, sent me off with a rugby ball and now I’m just running with it.”

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