A LLANDYSUL man who’s life changed forever when he suffered a stroke whilst teaching a school has spoken out about the need for mental health and wellbeing support for stroke survivors.

35-year-old Aaron Kent from Talgarreg, Llandysul, was 31 and fit and healthy when he was teaching a GCSE English lesson in October 2020 on Macbeth.

“The class were engaged in quiet work when I had a pain like somebody had boiled a kettle, waited for it to whistle, the poured the scalding water over the crevices of my brain.

“I got cover for the class, walked to reception, asked for paracetamol and woke up a week later.”

Aaron’s wife Emma was told by doctors to plan his funeral, as most people who turn up at hospital in his condition do not make it. But the father of two pulled through, although his recovery has been difficult.

“Looking back, this is the first point at which my mental health began to erode, at the point of diagnosis. Telling somebody they’ve had a stroke is not like telling somebody they’ve broken a finger. No, this carries with it a history of stigma, a culture of fear, and a premonition of a lonely path ahead.”

Aaron had joined the military and was serving as a submariner at the age of 20, was a teacher at Llandovery College at 29 and awarded a medal at 30, but at 31, he was then having to learn to walk and be assessed regularly whilst spending six weeks in the University Hospital of Wales Cardiff and Neath Port Talbot rehab unit – all whilst away from his family due to the covid-19 lockdowns and it had a truly strong effect on his mental health.

“The most painful decision I ever made was to die,” said Aaron. “I had been out of a coma for about three days when it became clear how complex and difficult the journey ahead of me would be, not just for me but for my loved ones; I came to the conclusion that rather than burden them with the difficulties of my recovery and post-stroke life, it would be easier to close my eyes and let death embrace me. This, unfortunately, is the stark reality of confronting the world after a stroke for many people.

“When I left hospital, I became aware of how alone I was and felt. Emma was a rock and supported me wholly, but she had no first-hand experience of suffering a stroke.

“I reached out to stroke forums and Facebook groups, for some detached hands that could guide me in the dark, but the nature of distance meant a revolving cast of people came and went, all just as lost sharing their experience and trying to understand this new post-stroke world. I couldn’t lift my children, my vision was affected and every headache, flash of eye pain, spell of light-headedness was met by a stone-cold belief that I was suffering another stroke.

“My world changed entirely, everything I had taken for granted had to be reconsidered. And when I thought I had overcome the stroke, new issues would come up: panic attacks, fatigue, lifestyle changes. Whenever you feel you are free from the stroke it pulls you back in and reminds you that you are not who you were.

“The counselling never materialised, I sat on a waiting list for years, but got no luck. Every avenue I had tried was met with failure, failure on behalf of a duty of mental health care, and a systemic failure of post-stroke guidance.”

Aaron is now paying for private weekly counselling sessions and is improving physically whilst becoming successful in his business as a writer, but still struggles with mental health and he suffers from panic attacks due to PTSD from the stroke.

Aaron is not alone in his feelings and has joined calls for specialist help and support for stroke survivors after a report by the Stroke Association and Mind Cymru found that only three per cent of stroke survivors received specialist mental health support when it was needed, despite around 75 per cent of the 70,000 stroke survivors in Wales suffering from a mental health condition following their stroke. It was also found that many of the survivors included in the report did not expect the mental health issues to develop following their stroke and it left them shocked and feeling alone.

The Stroke Association offers ‘tier one’ psychological support in terms of support coordinators in the community, a helpline, peer support and social activity groups, but there is a gap in ‘tier two’ support for those struggling with depression and/or anxiety.

Katie Chappelle, Stroke Association’s associate director for Wales, said: “We know that there is no ‘silver-bullet’ solution for helping stroke survivors rebuild their mental health, yet we want to see mental health given the same attention as physical health when recovering from stroke.

“Working with Mind Cymru and people affected stroke, we have begun to develop ideas for solutions including a specialist wellbeing recovery group for stroke survivors. However, this idea needs funding if we are going to be able to adequately support people across Wales to rebuild their mental health after stroke.”

Stroke Association and Mind Cymru are calling on those who plan and provide health and social care to work with them to ensure that there is timely and quality support for those affected by strokes.