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How running with dogs helped my depression and why men can find it hard to ask for help

When he harnesses up his dogs and heads for the hills around Ogmore to run with them Andy Caress feels happy to be alive. That was not the case a few years ago when his mental health took a downturn and he began to feel suicidal.

Fearing stigma the former FE lecturer from Nantymoel, Bridgend, said he got to a “very low point” before a friend finally persuaded him to seek medical help. By that time his mood swings had begun to feel “like third degree burns” and he was contemplating ending his own life.

Urging others to recognize the early stages of mental health problems and not to fear seeking help, Andy admits it has not been easy. Now working as a mental health trainer in education he said he is concerned that people talk about “resilience” at a time when many people don’t feel resilient post-pandemic. He is glad people talk more about mental health now, but he said it can be hard, especially for men.

Read more: Kimberley Nixon praised for sharing OCD struggles

Andy Caress out running with Monty and Humphrey

As part of his road to managing his mental health Andy, 37, has had medication and therapy and got a dog as a companion in 2016. When he began to run with his cocker spaniel Monty he realized how much better it made him feel. Now Andy has a second dog and is part of a growing number of people in Wales taking part in canicross, a Scandinavian sport of harnessing up to a dog and running with it.

Andy says the companionship of animals and sport has saved his life: “Without my dogs I wouldn’t be here anymore. They are like my therapists and canicross has become so important.”

The former Prince’s Trust worker and FE lecturer said he began to feel depressed for the first time in his late twenties. There was no obvious reason and he didn’t take his low mood seriously enough until it spiraled out of control and he questioned whether he wanted to carry on.

“I just started not enjoying life and not sleeping well. I couldn’t focus so well on day to day things and things I’d previously enjoyed I no longer found enjoyable. I tried to keep it hidden because of the stigma and got to a very suicidally low point.”

A friend finally persuaded Andy to go to the doctor and he was prescribed medication. But medication masked rather than cured the symptoms and for a while made him feel worse.

“I was first diagnosed with depression and anxiety in 2012 and the in 2017 I was diagnosed with a borderline personality disorder. 80% of people with it will attempt their own life and that’s a burden. I have quite extreme mood swings which are like emotional third degree burns. It is exhausting for me and people around me.”

Monty and Humphrey pull ahead as they are harnessed to Andy running behind

Andy decided to change his life. He had no connections to Wales but had visited and liked it here so he moved from his home in the north of England to Nantymoel in 2014. He trained as a mental health worker and now works for the Charlie Waller Trust delivering mental health first aid sessions and training.

Andy credits his dogs with helping him keep his mental health in check. He now has a second dog Humphrey, a cocker setter cross, and all three do canicross together.

“I got Monty just as a companion at first. But I used to run when I was younger and had heard of canicross. There are quite a lot of groups in Wales now. When I am finding things difficult it is good to get out with the dogs into the hills. It goes both ways. The dogs love it and there’s a community. There is evidence that spending time with dogs increases the feel good chemical serotonin in your body. There is a sense of connection when you are with a dog. They sense how you are feeling.”

In 2019 Monty and Andy completed their first full 26 mile canitrail marathon, which was organized by Red Kite Canitrail Events. Later that year he and Jon Fletcher from Red Kite Canitrail organized the first “Black Dog” trail run in aid of the Charlie Waller Trust – a 10k route in the Ogmore Valley to coincide with World Suicide Prevention Day. We were planning to repeat the event the following year, but Covid hit.

The delayed event will now take place this Sunday, May 8, to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week. 50 people have signed up to take part in the run, both canicrossers and trail runners. Members of Ogmore Valley Suicide Awareness will act as marshalls and suicide-prevention charity Papyrus will be there giving information about their work.

The run will be led by “black dog” front runner Charlotte Hayes and her dog Bandit. They will set off ahead of the main group of runners, who will aim to chase them down.

Andy is proud that in 2018 he started studying part-time for an MA in Child and Adolescent Mental Health at the University of South Wales which he got last year with a distinction. But he said he is aware that mental health, like physical health, needs to be attended to. And that’s why he likes nothing more than harnessing himself to Monty and Humphrey and running for the hills.


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