You may know Shirley Ballas as BBC1’s Strictly Come Dancing head judge but she also has another story to tell, after the tragic loss of her brother to suicide in 2003. We caught up with her to find out about her memories of her brother, how it inspires her to help others and how she’ll use her role as CALM Ambassador to help people to live a life less miserable.
Shirley Ballas knows first hand that people don’t always talk when they’re finding things hard. In 2003 she lost her brother David, who took his own life after dealing with depression. Unaware that he’d been suffering, Shirley has since been fuelled to encourage people to stop putting on a ‘brave face’ and talk to someone they trust, be it a friend, family member or a charity like CALM.
Keen for people to realise that anyone can find things difficult, she’s teamed up with us to highlight the importance of opening up and wants to show that there’s more to her own life than the star-studded and sequinned show Strictly Come Dancing:
“When I got asked to be a CALM ambassador, I was really quite ecstatic. When my brother passed away he had a lot of challenges with his mental wellbeing and Strictly has given me a platform where I can talk about it a lot more. I feel like this is in memory of my brother and I’m excited to get people to engage and talk about how they’re feeling, but also to learn tools that can help people.
First thing tomorrow morning, Facebook are matching all donations to Comic Relief using Facebook donation tools, up to £1million!@ShirleyBallas knows from her own experience the devastating impact suicide has on families. Please click here to donate https://t.co/XPSoUsgdrf 🔴🙏 pic.twitter.com/NrhsxPOJbs
— Comic Relief (@comicrelief) March 14, 2019
“There’s more to me than the glitz and glamour that you see on Strictly Come Dancing. We all bear the same issues. Some people choose to talk about it, some people need to learn to talk about it, but if we can make it a safe place for people to communicate, then I think we’ll see a rise in people reaching out to others. I want people to know that it’s okay to talk to somebody. It’s not about giving advice, it’s just about being a listening ear.”
It’s taken a long time for Shirley Ballas and her mother to let go of the guilt they felt after losing David, but after some professional help they realised they’re not to blame for what happened. Instead, Shirley understands how damaging it can be when people feel they can’t talk when they’re finding things tough, especially men:
“If you can, find someone to talk to who you can really trust. People find it embarrassing to talk about their mental health because there’s still a stigma around it. When my brother died, he was a big stocky fella who didn’t want to talk and we didn’t know what he was going through. Now, 17 years later, we know a lot more about mental wellbeing which is encouraging.
“Things are getting better and there are so many places you can reach out to now. You can reach out to charities like CALM, knowing they’re willing to listen to what you say in the strictest of confidence and at a time that’s suitable for you.”
Talking about what happened to her brother hasn’t come easy to Shirley, who says she thinks about him every day. Her focus now isn’t just helping others to talk, it’s on keeping David’s memory alive and working to prevent others being in the same situation:
“You never get over losing someone to suicide. People say ‘oh in time’, but every single day there’s a reminder. We had counselling because we felt we could have done more to save his life and since that process we’ve been able to talk about David, remember the good times and talk about him with great love.
“Will it get easier? I’m not sure it gets easier, it just gets different. As a family we choose to keep my brother’s memory very much alive. He’s talked about constantly and we’re always sharing his story in the hope it will help somebody else out there.”
Aside from encouraging people to be honest about their emotional health, Shirley wants to normalise the bad days, believing that admitting we all have them is a step in the right direction:
“The majority of people at some point will wake up and won’t feel like getting out of bed, or won’t understand why they feel the way they feel, but whatever you’re going through, with help it can be possible to pass through it. It’s about realising how many other people out there are in the same situation. We’re still scratching the surface and I feel that the more we’re vocal, then hopefully more people will feel it’s okay to reach out about it.”
Grief comes in waves, but on the days when things feel overwhelming, Shirley Ballas has found ways to make those feelings a little more bearable. She starts every day by making a list of things she has to do and always includes some kind of movement. For her, that means turning up the volume on her favourite 80s tunes and having a good dance:
“My favourite feel-good track is Whitney Houston, I Wanna Dance with Somebody. Any kind of upbeat movement can really help and this track always works when I’m feeling a bit low. Sometimes I’ll have a good cry which can really help me let go of those emotions. Just getting up in your own home and moving about to music can be amazing for your mental wellbeing. You don’t need to be cha cha cha-ing or paso doble-ing, just getting some endorphins going can help motivate you.”
Finally, Shirley was eager to share one final piece of advice before we said goodbye. Acutely aware of the what can happen when we don’t talk, she knows the responsibility doesn’t sit on our shoulders, but believes there are ways we can make sure we’re there for the people we love, whether that’s by looking for signs someone is struggling, or asking twice if they really are okay:
“I’ve had friends who’ve been overly chatty and happy and then suddenly they start cutting off, so if there are signs that something is awry, then let them know they’re in a safe environment if they want to chat about it. It’s okay to share and actually it can be a relief because it’s not such a burden when someone is helping you. I feel like CALM are always there and they’ll guide people in the right direction.”
Shirley Ballas: Photos by Blake Ezra
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