Foyle Bridge tyre drag: 'I want people to know, they don't have to do that lonely walk'

Shocked and saddened by the number of suicides in his adopted home city, Manchester man Jay Kiernan is dragging a tractor tyre across the Foyle Bridge to highlight the issue

Jay Kiernan, a personal trainer who is dragging a tractor tyre across the Foyle Bridge next month in aid of suicide awareness. Picture by Hugh Russell
Maureen Coleman

WHILE driving to work across the Foyle Bridge in Derry one morning, Jay Kiernan noticed a man crouching over, with one hand clinging onto his bike.

It was a blustery day and Jay presumed the man had been knocked off his bike by the gale. He thought little of it and continued his journey but by the time he reached work, news had filtered though that the man had in fact jumped from the bridge. It was a sad conversation Jay then had with his colleagues and one that he realised they were having at least once a month.

For the Manchester man, who settled in Derry four years ago, the tragic death weighed heavily on his mind. The father-of-two was struck by the rate of suicides in his adopted city and decided he wanted to do something to help raise awareness.

A personal trainer who works out of the X-Fit gym on Trench Road, he came up with an idea he believes will symbolise that lonely last walk taken by people in desperation and he hopes it will encourage more honest and frank discussions around suicide and mental health.

“Next month I will be dragging a heavy tractor tyre over the Foyle Bridge,” Jay explains. “The tyre will be painted white and will have words such as 'depression', 'relationships', 'anxiety' and 'drugs' painted on it to represent the heavy burdens so many people are carrying around with them every day and which impact upon their mental health.

“When I moved here from Manchester I was really struck by the high suicide rate. Manchester has its problems too but I think because Derry is much smaller, the rate seems much higher.

“Suicide hasn't been normalised here to the point where people don't care; they still do. But I'm still very shocked by the numbers of people who take their own lives by jumping from the Foyle Bridge.

“I've always been interested in helping people; that's the main reason I became a PT. By dragging a huge tyre across the bridge, I want to get more people talking. That bridge has been spoken about so many times since I moved here and it makes me feel so sad to think how heavy and weighed down a person must feel to make that journey alone.

Gary Rutherford, left, and Jay Kiernan, near the Foyle Bridge in Derry. Picture by Hugh Russell

“Importantly, I want to let them know that there is help out there. They don't have to do that lonely walk.”

Jay's tyre drag will also be a fundraiser, with money going to local mental health charity Aware NI and ARC Fitness, an addiction recovery coaching programme run by his pal and fellow PT, Gary Rutherford. The tyre drag will take place next month with the exact date yet to be pinned down but Jay has been given permission by the PSNI and the Department of Infrastructure to press ahead with the fundraiser while the bridge is closed down for maintenance work.

Initially Jay had been planning to do the long walk alone but several friends have volunteered to come along to offer their moral support. He has already started his training in earnest, hitting the gym twice a day and dragging a tyre strapped over his back with a harness, around the gym car park.

“The original idea was to drag weights from the gym on a gym sleigh, the equivalent of my body weight,” he explains. “Then a colleague suggested a tyre weighing between 60 and 75kg. That's pretty heavy to drag but I think it symbolises depression perfectly.

Emergency services at the Foyle Bridge in Derry. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

“The bridge will be closed between 5am and 7am. It's an early start but I'm well used to getting up at 5am anyway.

“As a personal trainer, I believe fitness is key to good mental and physical health. Yes, it's great to lose weight and tone up, but I come at it from a mental health point of view. Exercise helps so much in the battle against depression.

“I heard about ARC Fitness and what Gary is doing to help addicts recover. Training should be factored into recovery from depression and addiction and his programme gives people back their control. It helps them see what they're capable of physically and mentally and that's a route I'd like to go down in the future. The work he's doing is amazing.”

For 15 years Derry man Gary Rutherford struggled with addictions to alcohol and drugs and knows only too well what it's like to feel 'close to the edge'. It took him a full two years to reach sobriety but by the age of 30, he was ready to turn his life around and to use his experiences to help other addicts.

Gary retrained as a mental health nurse at the University of Ulster and became an addiction nurse therapist. Training was a massive part of his own recovery and personal growth, helping him to become more resilient and boosting his battered self esteem.

After gaining his Level 2 and 3 qualifications in personal training, Gary set up ARC Fitness, aimed at promoting a healthy and sustainable recovery for people struggling with substance abuse through exercise and positive lifestyle choices. He ran a trial programme at Pure Gym but due to demand for the six-week recovery programme, he opened his own gym at Distillery Brae in the Waterside.

The programme has proven so successful that Gary now works part-time in his nursing role to allow him to focus more on growing ARC.

“All our gym members go through a six-week recovery programme, training twice a week in the evenings,” he says. “Within that training, we look at theory and recovery strategies to help people live their best lives, substance free.

“So far, 22 people have gone through the recovery programme with 21 completing it. The majority of those have stayed on as permanent members of the gym.

“ARC is purely for addicts; to create a sober and active community. A varied spectrum of people has come through, men and women of all ages and from different backgrounds. What they all have in common is a substance addiction and a desire to lead a better life.”

Gary has only one stipulation for those wanting to go through the programme – they must be sober for at least 48 hours before they commit. Those who relapse are not deemed as failures, but instead are welcomed back in to try the process again.

Having been in the depths of despair through addiction, Gary says he could have lost all hope himself and done that long, lonely walk across the Foyle Bridge. He's grateful to Jay for raising awareness of mental health and says his fundraiser will not only help the non-profit organisation financially, but will also signpost people to somewhere that can offer support.

“When I talked to Jay I was really struck by his heart and passion for his fundraiser,” says Gary. “Listening to how he described that long, heavy walk, I could relate.

“That could've been me. I remember feeling so hopeless. But with hope, anything is possible. You really can turn your life around and step back from the edge.”

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