How I overcame my mental health issues and went on to succeed with AAT

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Alan Johnson FMAAT has faced many hurdles in his life: yet today, he runs a flourishing accountancy business which actively tries to assist those who might otherwise find it difficult to get help with their finances. 

So how has he survived and thrived despite the setbacks life has dealt him?

A difficult start

‘I was told I was useless at school’ says Alan, 50. ‘I left with one O level in music. I always liked maths and I said that I wanted to be an accountant but was just told I had no chance, that I would get nowhere in life’.

He suffered from abuse throughout his childhood which he only faced up to years later when he was receiving psychotherapy. After school, he worked as a gardener until at 23 he was involved in a road accident which left him with spinal injuries. He remains dependent on a wheelchair today.

Getting inspiration

After the accident, Alan needed to find a job he could do. Although he is dyslexic, this wasn’t fully diagnosed when he was at school ‘I was just told I was lazy’. He went to the local further education college and with one to one tuition he got English and Maths O levels, followed by Maths A level.

‘Then I got work experience in an office and from that, started work for an accountant’. From him, Alan started to learn all about accounting. ‘He’d give me stuff to do and would show me how to do things. He boosted my confidence, showed me that I could do it’.

Studying AAT gave me the foundations I needed for my career

During this time, Alan took and passed his AAT qualifications. Because he had dyslexia, he went to a private college where there were only three or four students in a class. ‘Studying AAT gave me the foundations I needed for my career. It gave me a knowledge base, confidence and a useful skill’.

The AAT’s PowerUp campaign has more great stories on how AAT qualifications can help everyone, whatever challenges they face, have a great career.

A decline in mental health

Alan continued working for the accountancy firm, assuming more responsibility and handling a range of clients. But over the years his mental health declined. In 2012, he had a breakdown. ‘There were days when I couldn’t get out of bed. All the trauma of my childhood surfaced.

On January 1 2012 I decided that by December 31 2012 I would be dead. I typed up a suicide note which fortunately my wife found’. She insisted he seek help from a psychotherapist.

The right kind of help

‘I still have help to this day,’ says Alan. ‘There are still some days when I feel very low but I know the signs now and know what to do. I would say to anyone who feels their mental health is suffering that it’s vital to get the right kind of help: you need someone you can trust and who you feel able to share your innermost thoughts with. Don’t put off seeking assistance: I truly think I wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t found help.’

Starting up his own business

In September 2015, Alan decided to set up his own business and by April 2016, it was up and running. In 2017 he was shortlisted in the AAT Professional Members Award. Alan doesn’t deal with large companies – most of his clients (his books are now full and he isn’t seeking new ones) are sole traders.

‘I’m making less money than I was 20 years ago but I’m happy with that,’ he adds.

A special service

What’s different about Alan’s client base is that many have felt disenfranchised in the past by financial firms or other organisations. Some of them have difficulty with writing; others with form-filling. Others find dealing with HMRC too much. ‘I see people who have reached the end of the road, who can’t read or write but still have to deal with the taxman. The system isn’t set up to help them,’ Alan adds.

The Nanny Mchpee of accountancy?

Alan says his aim is to help those who otherwise wouldn’t find it easy to handle their affairs; those who need more guidance and help than others. ‘I suppose I’m a bit like Nanny McPhee,’ he jokes. ‘So, when you need me you don’t want me but when you want me you don’t need me.’

He works irregular hours so can see clients in the evening and also has a sliding scale of charges. His dyslexia can also be an advantage: ‘I don’t see things in a linear way which means I can approach things from a different angle,’ he adds.

Keep going

Alan says that he wouldn’t consider retirement – ‘What would I do? Anyway, my work is like a hobby. I love what I do. I don’t want to stop. Working helps my mental health too, so it’s beneficial to me and my clients.

I still have bad days, but I think to myself that if I can get through this, then I can get through anything. I really would tell anyone who feels their mental health is suffering is to get help, the right help, as soon as you can. And the fact that I am helping people – people who otherwise find it hard to get help, who need their hands holding – helps me too.’


If you feel that your mental health is a concern, seek help sooner. There are helplines – also your HR department should be able to assist you. The great thing about AAT qualifications is that they make it easier to work flexibly – you could build up your own business like Alan or maybe work from home in the hours which suit you.

Alan’s experience shows that even if you have multiple obstacles to overcome, it’s still possible to have an amazing career.

Further reading:

Charlotte Beugge spent more than 20 years as the deputy personal finance editor on The Daily Telegraph and then The Daily Mail. A freelancer since 2010, her work has appeared in national newspapers, magazines and websites.

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