'There's light at the end of the tunnel': Ex-Walsall Council leader opens up on mental health battle

Ex-Walsall Council chief Sean Coughlan opens up about the pressures of the job which resulted in him attempting to take his own life.

Councillors Diane and Sean Coughlan. Credit: Gurdip Thandi LDR
Councillors Diane and Sean Coughlan. Credit: Gurdip Thandi LDR

“It’s that old adage of the ‘tears of a clown’. You try to smile, you try to be brave and you’ve always got to have an answer to everything but behind the scenes, you are just dying inside and that’s how I felt.”

Former Walsall Council leader Sean Coughlan never thought he’d suffer from depression, let alone try to take his own life.

But his mental health deteriorated when the pressures of running a large political group and being the director of an ailing community association became too much.

The 62-year-old opened up about his darkest days but added that there is light at the end of the tunnel and he now wants to help other sufferers understand that things can get better.

In an exclusive interview with the Local Democracy Reporting Service, Councillor Coughlan revealed that he tried to kill himself in December 2018 as he struggled to cope with the intense situations his various roles had placed him in.

He also spoke about his devastation over the collapse of Palfrey Community Association earlier this year due to financial problems, the support he has received from many different sources including weekly counselling sessions and his desire to be reselected to stand as a councillor in the Willenhall South seat he has held since 1995.

Sean said: “I know I’m in a much better position and there is light at the end of the tunnel and that’s what I want people to understand.

“There are still pressures and managing that is really important. Everything has to be handled carefully.

“But I’m better than I was last month and much better than I was three months ago and certainly better than I was six months ago.”

In April this year, he stood down as leader of the opposition Labour group in Walsall shortly after his depression was diagnosed.

Palfrey Community Association was forced to close up earlier this year

But he said the problems started back in late 2016 and early 2017 when Palfrey Community Association missed out on the Surestart nursery contract – which meant it lost one of its biggest income streams.

At the time, he was still leader of the council and portfolio holder for land and housing on the West Midlands Combined Authority, negotiating the £350m deal for the region.

He said: “I look back and I started having anxiety attacks whilst I was leader of the council. It was a tough time. I think if there was a catalyst it was around the Surestart contract.

“Everything I’d tried to work for and do was to keep a fine line between being leader of the council and being community director of Palfrey CA and that tender process just mixed it all up.

“There was a period of that tender process and then losing the tender with all the issues that then have to be dealt with. It became a really difficult situation.

“At the same time I was trying to deal with still being leader of the Labour group and it was getting terrible for me in the sense that I was slipping more and more into depression.

“I was driving to work when I was having panic attacks. So I’d pull over and cry for half an hour.

“I’d pull myself together to get to work and do a full day but then I still had council meetings to attend and it just became a vicious circle and I couldn’t talk to anybody.

“Lots of times I just couldn’t sleep at night and I’d think about ways of ending it. I didn’t suddenly wake up in December 2018 and decide that was it. It was 12 months of having suicidal thoughts and battling against that.

“In my head, the logical reason for me was suicide. I believed everybody would be better off if I wasn’t here and that the world would be better off, the grand-kids were young enough to forget about me when I was gone and they’d grow up without all the worry and hassle I thought I was bringing on the family.

“I woke up the next morning [after the attempted suicide] and felt terrible and full of disappointment that I had woken up. I felt ashamed.”

Sean Coughlan at the helm of Walsall Council in 2016

He had hidden his problems including his attempted suicide, from his wife of 40 years Diane – who is also a councillor in the ward – until she noticed things weren’t right in March this year.

He said: “Diane thought there was something physically wrong with me so she booked me in at the doctors and I just had to come clean.

“I had to say what I’d done and what I was going through, which was a massive shock for Diane and I think admitting it was the right thing to do but it tipped me over the edge and I had a complete breakdown.”

Diane added: “It was a shock. I had no idea where all this had come from. I’d known for a few weeks he hadn’t been himself. I look back now and realise I’d missed the signs.”

After it became apparent how ill he was, she took on the job of leading Labour’s election campaign in Willenhall South, continuing to do the school run for their grand children and caring for her husband – all while being a councillor.

She said: “I struggled myself and there were certain council officers and regional Labour who were really supportive and I can’t thank them enough.

“I ended up having counselling myself. I wasn’t coping, I couldn’t cry in front of him, I couldn’t burden my family. I was bottling a lot of it up.”

During this time, the couple said the situation was made far worse with innuendos being made that he had taken funds out of Palfrey.

He said: “In April this year, when people suggested money went missing it was hard to take because I was at a really low point and yes, I admit I thought about suicide again.

“I was lucky enough to have the support to get past that.”

Diane Coughlan added: “One of the hardest things for me was going back in the council and walking through the departments because of things that had been said and I didn’t know if staff believed the slurs that he had stolen the money.”

Part of that support they’ve received has come from ex-Palfrey staff and members of the community.

Sean said: “The support from Palfrey has been a real help. Staff, community representatives – it has been humbling because it’s not what I expected.

“I thought people would be disappointed with me and blame me but they haven’t. They’ve even suggested going back to do voluntary work in Palfrey. It is nice to hear that.

“I still feel guilty and feel I let people down. As many of the community reps and ex-staff tell me I didn’t, I can’t help feeling that way.”

His local Labour branch will vote on whether he should be re-selected to stand in Willenhall South next month.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn with Sean Coughlan during a visit to Willenhall in 2016

Despite the pressures, Sean said he was ready to continue fighting for Willenhall – not least to show others who are suffering that they can come back.

He said: “I’m still that same person from Willenhall who cares and wants the best for Willenhall and that will continue to be my motivation.

“There comes a point where you can get back to where you were. You can be productive and you can get back to being a good citizen.”

Diane added: “Because you’ve suffered with mental health issues, it doesn’t mean that you can never come back. If he thinks he can cope, then I’m fully behind him as I always have been.”

He also urged other people struggling with mental health issues to seek support and open up about their problems.

He said: “With politics, you have to present yourself as unflappable, you have to lead by example and you want people to feel confident and so you put on this thing that doesn’t really become yourself. It’s just a mask you wear.

“The macho side of things is you don’t talk to anybody and I know that was a mistake. If I’d have spoken to somebody earlier on, I wouldn’t have been in the position that I’m in now but I just couldn’t.

“It’s hard to explain how dark the world gets when you are in that position. I thought I was thinking logically that suicide is the answer but of course, I wasn’t.

“Diane’s understanding and the counselling has helped me through it.

“There’s lot of positives to hold on to and that’s the message I want to give people. Accept you’ve got a problem and seek support and talking to people is the most important thing. That’s what I’ve learned.

“I’m pleased in myself to be where I am today because I’m in a much better place than I’ve been.”

  • If you are suffering from mental health issues and struggling to cope, the Samaritans can be contacted 116 123 or by visiting www.samaritans.org

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