New ‘Dudes and Dogs’ walking group aims to boost mental health

Having struggled with his mental health in the past, Mark Kelly is now keen to help others - CHRIS DUNNE finds out how
New ‘Dudes and Dogs’ walking group aims to boost mental health

Mark Kelly with dog George at The Marina. Dudes and Dogs meet at 11am each Sunday at The Atlantic Pond (Blackrock End of Pairc Ui Chaoimh)., The Marina, Cork. Picture: Larry Cummins

WAY back when Mark Kelly experienced mental health issues, he found opening up to others, sharing and talking, was part of the solution.

Now Mark, who is a youth worker originally from Derry, living in Wilton, has started a community interest project, ‘Dudes and Dogs’, a weekly walking group where a group of men walk and talk together and form a connection.

But you don’t have to have a dog to take part.

“It is optional!” says Mark, who is 40 this year.

Mark Kelly who suffered with poor mental healthy previously set up the Dudes and Dogs branch in Cork, to support others. Picture: Larry Cummins
Mark Kelly who suffered with poor mental healthy previously set up the Dudes and Dogs branch in Cork, to support others. Picture: Larry Cummins

“I don’t have a dog but I walk my friend’s boxer/ red setter. We both enjoy the walk and I enjoy chatting with other men about lots of things. Making new friends is great too,” says Mark.

“Dudes and Dogs is a men’s well-being group set up with one single premise; to show men everywhere that is not just OK to talk, it is vitally important.

“We do this by getting men into the fresh air with other dog dudes to walk and talk.”

To know you are not alone is a powerful ally in the battle against mental health.

“I lived with depression most of my life,” says Mark.

“My parents split up when I was very young and I lived with my grandparents who were very supportive and encouraging. When I was school age I had a feeling of sadness and melancholy.

“Starting secondary school, I put on a lot of weight and I was bullied throughout my school years. When it was time to go to college, I spent that time running away to the UK. I had a lot of problems.”

Mark took a road to nowhere.

“I tried to deal with my problems by drinking and using recreational drugs,” he says.

“I lived in Kent, where I went to study. I had the idea of becoming a film-maker. They were strange days, I came out of my shell a bit and made friends but there were still a lot of things I couldn’t get a handle on and I experienced emotional difficulties.”

Mark opted out.

“Not finishing my education hung over me for a long time.

“I had feelings of being an imposter, of worthlessness and self-doubt.”

Mark’s mental health came to a head.

“In 2009, I had a complete mental breakdown. I was working for a language school in Derry. All of a sudden I had doubt and insecurity. I was second-guessing myself, looking over my shoulder. I felt like I was bluffing everyone and that I’d get found out. It came to a head and I couldn’t cope anymore.”

Mark Kelly with dog George walking down the Marina. Pictures: Larry Cummins
Mark Kelly with dog George walking down the Marina. Pictures: Larry Cummins

He sought medical advice.

“I went to the doctor and I was diagnosed with stress and anxiety,” says Mark.

“I was prescribed medication, but it didn’t really work for me. It was five or six years later that I started to get well.”

He started the conversation. “I reached out to Aware in Derry,” says Mark.

He didn’t go the distance.

“I went to one meeting and I didn’t go back until 2014. I found then that the weekly support group helped me and talking helped me.”

But then he lost a family member to suicide in early 2015, which set him back.

“It was devastating,” he recalls.

Mark was forced to look at his own situation and his own mental health.

“Something snapped into focus for me and I took a long look at myself and I acknowledged that I was living with mental health issues,” says Mark.

“I knew that I’d have to move forward and get help. I had to properly engage and do something to recover. I was only going through the motions before. I never acknowledged the serious issue.”

Mark got help when he started talking to local voluntary organisations.

“And I switched doctors,” he says.

“I took a pro-active role in my own well-being. Through the right medications and a doctor who listened to me and understood me, I made progress.”

He continued the conversation.

“I started going to Aware support meetings regularly. It was there I got the idea to go back to education. I decided to become involved in a helping profession.”

He came to Leeside to study.

“I decided to go back to university,” says Mark.

“I came to Cork, to UCC. I had a cousin living in Cork that I was close to. When I visited him I fell in love with the place. My degree is in community work. My placement was in Ballincollig at the Family Resource Centre.”

Mark’s new beginnings heralded another new beginning.

“A community referral worker heard about Dudes and Dogs in the UK, started up by Rob Osmond,” says Mark.

It’s his baby. After the first lockdown, I thought it was a good idea to start our own group of Dudes and Dogs in Cork. Six guys came along, four had dogs, two didn’t have dogs. Dogs can be an engagement tool but it’s not necessary to bring a dog on the walk.

“The men got talking and became comfortable in each other’s company.

“Making a connection through an activity is good therapy. The original group started in Ballincollig are not official, so I reached out to Rob in the UK to establish Dudes and Dogs officially in Ireland. The plan next year is to establish the brand in Ireland.”

Mark said the group is open to anyone, even if you don't have a dog. Picture: Larry Cummins
Mark said the group is open to anyone, even if you don't have a dog. Picture: Larry Cummins

Dudes and Dogs Cork meet at the Atlantic Pond on Sundays at 11am and walk for an hour, taking different routes each week.

“We do talk,” says Mark.

“It is a pretty open forum and friendships are forged as result. We often finish a walk with a coffee at the Marina Market. When restrictions are lifted, we’ll probably go out socially for a meal or a drink.”

Mark’s mental health is in a good place now.

“My mental health is a lot better now. I have a really strong support network. My under-grad thesis was on the group and I hope to do my Masters in Psychology.

“Getting this organisation set up gave me confidence and stability. I feel I can look forward to a more positive future.

“Dudes and Dogs helped me settle in and establish a good group of friends. I’m hoping that the group will help even one other guy and that will be of great value, and it is great that it is something I am involved in.”

He has a message for guys.

“It is good therapy to talk. That is my message to them,” says Mark.

“The aim is to lift the stigma around mental health and to challenge the traditional use of masculinity.

“The goal is to reduce male suicide and recognise they are an at-risk group.

“If you don’t want to talk, just come and walk and get out into the fresh air.”

They’ll meet George too.

“My friend’s dog is great, and so friendly!”

Mark wants to spread the word about Dudes and Dogs and he wants to get men walking and talking.

“It is so simple,” says Mark.

He is enthusiastic about walking and talking.

“If no-one shows up, I’m still going!” says Mark.

“I want to encourage men to get out and talk and walk.

“Anyone can come along and come and go as they please. Men from all walks of life are welcome. And it’s free.”

There is one condition.

“You have to be a guy!” says Mark, laughing.

He hopes Dudes and Dogs will take off country-wide. “We’re hoping to get Dudes and Dogs established and we’re going after funding to roll it out as a project in the UK and Ireland and get walks set up all over the country. We’ll never charge money.

“There is no pressure, no agenda, no stigma, no expectations.”

There is food for thought though.

“Being involved in Dudes and Dogs has made me want to get a dog again!” says Mark.

“We have started small, but I have big ambitions for the group. It is such a simple idea to get guys talking and making friends; that is a bonus.”

Mark says that sharing his own story is important to him.

“I am very active in mental health advocacy,” he say.

For more see www.dudesndogs.co.uk

Or find them at:

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/dudesndogs

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/dudes_anddogs/

FB: https://www.facebook.com/DudesnDogs

MORE ABOUT THE INITIATIVE

Dudes and Dogs a (CIC), is an initiative that supports men’s mental health. It began in the Bristol area and due to success, has opened up across the UK and now internationally.

The vision is for men in every corner of the world to know it’s not just OK to talk; it’s vitally important.

Men in particular are not great at sharing their feelings, and this can lead to unresolved issues building. In the UK and Ireland, suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45.

The premise is a simple one; getting men out into the open air, accompanied by a dog or two, to walk and talk.

Trained ‘Dog Dudes’ host walks, accompanied by a dog or two.

The Dog Dudes are also internationally accredited Mental Health First Aiders.

From January 30, walks will take place at 11am every Sunday at the Atlantic Pond, Cork city.

Anyone wanting to join must book a slot using the D&D website: https//dudesndogs.co.uk/pages/walks.

Walks are limited to a maximum of six guys to help manage walks in a Covid-safe way. You don’t need to bring a dog but you are welcome to.

SUPPORT NUMBERS

Samaritans 116 123

Aware Helpline: 1890 303 302

GROW 1890 474 474

Pieta House 1800 247 247

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