From trauma to triumph - award-winning Alexis' own remarkable road to recovery

By Grimsby Telegraph | Posted: 16 May 2019

A horrific double car crash that nearly saw the founder lose her left leg as she’d barely taken a footstep in adult life sowed the seed for Fortis Therapy and Training to flourish. More than half her lifetime on, and the mental health and emotional wellbeing business Alexis Powell-Howard founded was named as overall winner at The Small Awards. South Bank editor David Laister finds out more. 

Alexis with E-Factor managing director Mark Webb, centre, and awards organiser Tom Flynn.

That air of invincibility, taken away from a young woman setting out in life in such dramatic circumstances on the outskirts of Grimsby one evening several years ago, may just have had a brief return this week.

For as the great people behind Mental Health Awareness Week prepared to launch, Alexis Powell-Howard’s business was crowned as one of the nation’s finest.

She’s also up for two gongs at the Northern Lincolnshire Business Awards tomorrow.

Having been involved in a car crash on the A46 at Swallow, a 19-year-old Alexis was checking on the people in the other car when they were hit once again, inflicting traumatic injuries on her limbs and a further wound unseen by many.

“I was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder,” she said, recalling what followed. “I had two different therapists, both of whom practised unethically, and it left me in a place where I was not being supported helpfully. The physical stuff I got through, but the mental side not so, the thing that really affected me was how life could change in an instant and you realise how little you can do about it. It was a big realisation. I had support of family and friends, and I was then going through training, doing a lot of therapy and personal development, but it took quite a few years to recover fully.

“That accident is the reason I do this. It was four to five years. I took myself off to university to become a therapist, as I was passionate about helping people in the best way I can. I was anxious, it affected my identity. Because I was 19, thinking I was invincible, but just in a matter of minutes things turned.”

The past seven years have seen Fortis go from a start-up to an employer of 24, with a main office in Grimsby’s Abbey Walk, and further facilities in Scunthorpe and Hull.

“We work with all ages, and across all sectors, and that is what makes us different,” the married mother-of-three said. “We are in 45 schools now, the chemical industry, the police, and we get private referrals as well.”

Brought up in Grimsby, she started work in the then-family business, Cleethorpes fish and chip restaurant Seaway, before joining high street giant M&S’ head office in London, working nationwide. Her change of direction post that crash 25 years ago, saw her go on to teach counselling at Grimsby Institute and York St John’s, while also working with the Children and Adolescents Mental Health Services.

Of the awards – she also picked up the At Your Service accolade within Marylebone’s historic St Mary’s Church – she said: “Just being shortlisted for a national award in the knowledge we were up against tough competition meant we were over the moon, then to win the category was absolutely marvellous. To win overall was amazing, and really nice to have that recognition.”

And recognition of mental health, and it being okay to not be okay, is front and centre.

“It is really good how far we have come, but there is still some way to go when you look at levels of service and how they are funded,” she said. “We are a private organisation, and it takes a lot of hard work to do the work we do. However, if we had gone for an award like this a few years ago, I’m not so sure we’d have succeeded. It is easier to talk about, the conversation has certainly moved on, it is accessible and acceptable.

“The awards help raise awareness, help people to know they can access a service. It happens to all of us - the statistics say one in four people will experience depression at least.

“Our whole aim is to help as many people as we can in whatever way is needed. We are always developing new ways, different ways, to engage people in training and emotional well being.”

This week sees the national initiative being built upon and next month Fortis’ annual conference will pull people in from around the country to DoubleTree by Hilton Forest Pines Hotel.

“We are involved in wellbeing lunches, looking at managing stress across different sectors, and speaking at a health and safety conference this week. Wherever we can get to, we go, and if services are approachable, it helps people come towards you. It can be hidden, yet we all have mental health, so it is crazy it is hidden really.”

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