Donna overcomes challenges to join support network for South Wales veterans

Grace Andrews Case Studies

Army veteran Donna Purnell, 36, from Ammanford, experienced mental health challenges and reached breaking point years after leaving service. With joint support from Veterans NHS Wales, Change Step and The Poppy Factory, she has been able to recover and flourish in a new job offering emotional support to families in the region.

Post-service struggles

“When I was 16 or 17 and leaving school, I didn’t feel like there was anything for me at home so I joined the Royal Signals to get away. My father was in the RAF and I’m the 8th generation of Armed Forces veterans in my family. I served for nearly five years, mostly in Germany, and I do miss the lifestyle a little bit. But I had one really bad experience which I suppressed for years.

“I was medically discharged from the Army because of my mental health, and I really lost my way. I went from one bad job to another. I spent five years working in the contact centre of a bank, where I was told again and again that I wasn’t good enough for promotion.

“Eventually I was completely broken, and I came home from work one day so upset that I tried to take my own life. I told my partner that I loved him, went upstairs and emptied the medicine cabinet. I’d been feeling that everyone would be better off without me. But my partner found me, and seeing him react and the effect it had on him was a real wake-up call.

Finding support

“In April 2019 I slipped down some stairs and broke my leg and ankle, and I had to have an operation. I’d already handed in my notice at the bank, which was a huge release. I needed to get a new job, but my partner said we should make sure I sorted myself out first.

“My GP referred me to Veterans NHS Wales and I started working regularly with one of their therapists, Julie. I’m usually quite bubbly but I’d become a complete shell of a person. Julie was the perfect person to sort my head out. She used a lot of visual aids instead of writing everything down. I was also helped by Change Step, which helps veterans deal with life challenges. I’d become quite agoraphobic so my mentor, Dai, encouraged me to leave the house and meet him in the park. 

The journey back to employment

“When I felt it was time to look for a job, I was introduced to Natalie at The Poppy Factory. I had no idea what to put on my CV, I hadn’t had an interview for such a long time, and I’d been unemployed for eight months. Natalie sorted me out and got me on RBLI’s Lifeworks course, and things quickly snowballed.

“Natalie knew about an opportunity coming up with the Family Foundation, a community support charity, and she encouraged me to look out for it and get in touch. It started with a phone call and they loved my personality. Then I had a video interview on my laptop. I put notes behind to the computer as little reminders and I was confident that I’d done the best I could. When I found out I’d got the job, the first thing I did was phone Natalie. She was as chuffed as I was.

Making a difference during Covid-19

“When lockdown happened it caused a delay, although in a way it made things easier. As the new Family Support Officer I had to set up a programme to support veterans and their families, and I could focus on planning that before meeting clients face to face.

“I love my job. It’s such a refreshing change to want to come to work and my boss is really supportive. I had a bit of a wobble at one point and she really put my mind at rest. It’s fantastic to be able to make a difference and offer emotional support to people I can relate to.”

Joint working in South West Wales

Natalie McCombe, Employability Consultant at The Poppy Factory, said: “When Dai at Change Step knew the timing was right, he referred Donna to me for employability support. We all worked together to support Donna back into employment and the journey is very much one of her stars aligning.

“Donna has been in post over three months now and is already making an impact in our region. I am very proud her all her achievements, she has come a long way and has a fantastic personality for working in the third sector.”

  • To register for The Poppy Factory’s employability support or for more information, click here.
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