The Need to Talk
As a Royal Marine, Phillip Eaglesham was one of the fittest men in the country. He served as a front line soldier with tours of duty in Iraq and twice in Afghanistan. In 2010, two days before returning home to his wife and three young children, he contracted Q fever, a bacterial infection spread by animals, that has robbed him of his career and his health, unable to lift even a cup of coffee. From this crushing illness, Phillip has risen to represent his country of birth, Ireland, at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio, designed a new wheelchair that is changing the way we view disabled people, and become a champion of mental health issues working alongside the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry. Comment Magazine spoke to Phillip in his Somerset home.
In March this year, Corporal Phillip Eaglesham joined Prince Harry, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Professor Green, Andrew Flintoff, Rio Ferdinand, Alastair Campbell, and many others to launch a new mental health campaign called Heads Together. Heads Together, through the use of video and social media, and working alongside other charities, seeks to encourage people to talk more openly about their experiences of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts, removing the stigma attached to mental illness. It was the latest step in a truly inspiring journey that has seen Phillip fight for his country, against the stigma of disability, and crippling depression.
“My illness has changed many things in my life,” says Phillip, “but perhaps the one thing I was not prepared for was the chronic depression that followed. The reliance on other people, on a wheelchair, and the stigma that is attached to disability led me to a very dark place and to the point of taking my own life. I believed that it would be better if I were no longer a burden on my wife and children.
“Depression is like breaking glass – the shards spread and can hurt those closest to you.”
It was the chance discovery by Phillip’s wife, Julie, of an internet search history on his iPad on drug overdoses that ultimately led to support from specialist counsellors, friends and family needed to fight that battle, and in turn change the lives of many others.
“My wheelchair is my legs,” explains Phillip. “It is how I get around, get out of the house and live as close to a normal life as possible. It is hugely important to me and without it I am truly stuck.”
Yet motorised chairs can be hugely expensive, starting at £10,000 for the most basic unit, with little choice of provider or apparent development. And they don’t work well with everyday life: a standard wheelchair needs wider doorways, specially adapted furniture, cannot manage steps, and can take up to eight hours to charge. “When they break, which they frequently do, and when they need charging I am stuck – my legs have been taken away.” And then there is the stigma attached to wheelchair users.
“Able-bodied people struggle enormously to engage with wheelchair users,” says Phillip. “Do you kneel, sit or bend over to speak with them, or do you talk over their heads? Political correctness hasn’t helped, and people just don’t know how to best engage.”
Phillip, perhaps as only a Marine can, addressed this challenge head on, designing a completely new wheelchair and creating a company, Victor Mobility, to develop and produce it. The chair addresses all of the issues Phillip faces. It can be easily raised to speak with people at standing head height, it can be lowered allowing Phillip to sit at the dining table, he can hold Julie’s hand whilst walking along the street, and even hold his young son whilst he learns to ride a bike. It will fit through a standard doorway and, importantly, charge in just 11 minutes. A full working prototype of the Victor Mobility chair will be launched at the 2017 Invictus Games in September.
Another important step taken in Phillip’s ongoing battle with depression was his decision to compete in the 2016 Rio Paralympics, representing Ireland in the shooting R5 10m air rifle competition. And whilst his competitors took many years to prepare, Phillip had just 10 months in which to qualify and get physically and mentally ready. It was also a perfect platform for him to speak openly about his battle with depression and the need for others that suffer to talk openly about their experiences. “I didn’t do too well in Rio, but that wasn’t really the point,” says Phillip. “To make it there was an achievement in itself.
“And the impact it has had on my wife and three children has been terrific. They have seen what their dad can achieve and the look on their faces in Rio said it all.”
Phillip is hoping to compete in Tokyo 2020 and is currently raising the £30,000 needed every year to prepare and qualify.
“The need to talk, to share experiences, and to not fall back into darkened corners are critical to beating depression,” explains Phillip, “and that is what Heads Together is working to achieve.
“This campaign is so important. Whether a famous sportsman or woman, a child unable to cope with the pressures created by social media, serving personnel or just the person on the street, the stigma surrounding mental health needs to be beaten. “
“It is by sharing our experiences and talking, through the support of family and friends and, of course, medical professionals, that we can help those suffering and beat mental illness.”