Former Royal Marine meets 500 students in mental health drive

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Former Royal Marine meets 500 students in mental health drive

Commando Chris Hayes says JFS' initiative for veteran support charity Beit Halochem UK is "desperately needed and should be on a national scale".

Beit Halochem UK Ambassador, former Royal Marine Commando Christopher Hayes, with JFS sixth-formers. January 2023.
Beit Halochem UK Ambassador, former Royal Marine Commando Christopher Hayes, with JFS sixth-formers. January 2023.

A former commando medically discharged from the Royal Marines has shared his soldiering experiences and mental health struggles with students at JFS.

As part of an initiative by a British charity supporting Israel’s wounded veterans and victims of terror, Christopher Hayes met 525 Year 10 and 12 pupils. It marked a return visit to the Kenton school as part of Beit Halochem UK’s innovative approach to supporting mental well-being and resilience in schools across the country.

The charity raises awareness and funds for Israel’s wounded veterans and victims of terror, and provides opportunities for injured UK servicemen and women to take part in sporting events with their Israeli counterparts at their Veteran Games.

Inspiring scenes from the BHUK Veteran Games in Israel. Photos: Justin Cohen.

JFS welcomed Hayes’ return after the success of his previous visit in 2022, and as part of their ongoing mental health awareness programme.

Medically discharged from the Royal Marines in 2017 with “an alarming cocktail of mental health problems”, Hayes admitted he was “lost and heartbroken, desperately depressed and alone; an insomniac with OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) and complex PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder.). I pushed everything and everyone away.”

The students heard that being an ambassador for BHUK, competing in their Veteran games in Israel and speaking at school assemblies, formed a key part of his ongoing recovery. Questions put to Hayes included whether he feared dying, whether his views of Israel changed after visiting in person and how to develop a strong mindset.

“I could go on. I did go on,” he said, encouraging them to have the courage to ask for help if they’re struggling. Several students continued the conversation with Hayes in the school’s cafeteria following the assembly.

16-year old Mikey Silverstein said he found Hayes very inspiring: “To hear from someone who is a real-life superhero, you don’t expect them to have mental health problems and to struggle, teaches me to never give up and persevere in life. I won’t forget this moment.”

Nicholas Azulay, 16, said: “It was amazing to meet him. It gave me an understanding of how to overcome difficulties and how to go straight in to get things done; that way you’ll get through it.”

In turn, Hayes told Jewish News he was “in awe of the intellect, profundity and depth of the questions/conversations I have had with the children at JFS. They always seems to ask deep, profound questions that cut right to the meat of the issue.”

BHUK Chairman Andrew Wolfson, BHUK Ambassador Christopher Hayes, and JFS head teacher Dr. David Moody. January 2023.

Spencer Gelding, chief executive of BHUK, told Jewish News: “Chris, along with the many other UK veterans that Beit Halochem UK work with are becoming our greatest ambassadors. When I stand up and speak about Israel no one is surprised by what I have to say, but to have a non-Jewish former Royal marine stand up and speak so positively about the community and Israel, well, that’s something truly special.”

Chris told Jewish News that meeting the students “means the world to me. To be a small part of what Beit Halochem is spearheading in schools is an honour. I recognise the huge need this generation of kids has because it was missing so flagrantly in my mine.” Hayes believes “with all my conviction and heart” that BHUK’s new initiative of bringing veterans into schools is “progressive, desperately needed and should be on a national scale as soon as possible. It’s so cathartic … to almost talk to my younger self through the children and to help guide them or signpost them on issues regarding mental health or life skills not in the curriculum, like for example, overcoming adversity, mindfulness, garnering self belief. It’s a huge honour for me.”

Dr. David Moody, headteacher at JFS, told Jewish News: “I have watched many speakers in many assemblies over the last twenty years and this is, without doubt, one of the most moving and honest accounts that I have ever heard of hardship and the battle to overcome it. The pin-drop silence was the sound of students visibly moved by the story to which they were listening. On a personal note, as the son of a Royal Marine, I could not be more proud of our armed forces and the work that they do to protect freedoms around the world.”

BHUK Chair Andrew Wolfson said: “Chris has clearly suffered beyond the realms of what I or anyone I know of, has suffered and he stands up and talks about his problems, overcoming them and being strong every day and learning to do better.  That’s pretty powerful for us to hear. It serves as an inspiration.”

Hosted by former Israeli President Reuben Rivlin, the inaugural BHUK Games and mental health conference, conceived and developed by Wolfson with the Israeli Embassy, was held in 2019. It brought together 100 British and Israeli wounded veterans for five-days of sporting competition at the charity’s state-of-the-art centres, family time and sightseeing.

BHUK plans to bring UK Veterans to other Jewish and non-Jewish school, both private and state schools, across 2023.

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