9 Jun 2023

The 'Big Kid' rebuilding his life with LEGO

From Nine To Noon, 9:43 am on 9 June 2023

Dan Mulholland was passionate about LEGO as a kid, then rediscovered its wonders when he had his own children.

Since a PTSD-related breakdown stopped Dan in his tracks four years ago, building with LEGO blocks has become something much more to the former medic – an essential mental health tool.

LEGO master builder Dan Mulholland Photo: https://docedge.nz/films/big-kids/

Now, Dan provides a safe, inclusive environment for others to find social interaction and support through LEGO via his Brick-by-Brick® programme.

He's also at the centre of a new short documentary about Aotearoa's Adult Fans of LEGO (AFLs). Big Kids premieres at New Zealand's Doc Edge film festival tonight.

He became involved after Wellington filmmaker Tom Field posted a message to the Mega Fans of LEGO ® NZ Facebook page, which Dan administrates.

He offered to connect Tom with other community members, but after their meeting, Dan's story took centre stage in the documentary.

After joining the NZ Army at 17, the following year Dan was the youngest and lowest-ranked person deployed to assist with tsunami relief in Papua New Guinea.

Reaching PNG by boat, the servicepeople found the Sissano Lagoon "littered with the deceased". But once on land, Dan had to immediately start treating the wounded.

"I was only a young medic and it was literally being thrown in the deep end of a pool. We were over there for a few weeks, did everything we could and then came back to New Zealand."

Dan says the only mental health check-in he received subsequently was from a psychologist addressing a group of around 50 people at the official debrief.

"Back in the '90s, I hate to say it but looking after people's mental health wasn't really at the forefront of anybody's minds, especially in the medic world … You just push it down, push it down deep."

Later, Dan was a volunteer and paid paramedic with a New Zealand ambulance service, working alongside mostly older men.

"Because I was ex-military, they expected a level of hardness… you weren't meant to fold under pressure. So you suppress it all, you push it all down. You do your job.

"For 20 years, dealing with death, destruction, and dismemberment on an almost daily basis, I thought it was normal. Then I had a complete total and utter mental breakdown in 2019."

One day Dan's oldest son – one of three "awesome" kids – casually draped a belt around his neck while changing out of his school uniform.

"That, for me, created a flashback to a job I'd been to … the response to that was instant and it was visceral. It's still hard to talk about.

"I literally just lost everything that day. Three, four years later, I'm still struggling to find it. But I lost everything – I lost my sense of confidence... I didnt leave the house for four months. I couldn't face going out."

LEGO master builder Daniel Mulholland in the 2023 short documentary Big Kids

LEGO master builder Daniel Mulholland in the 2023 short documentary Big Kids Photo: Tom Field

Dan says he was very fortunate to have a good support network. After an ex-military friend suggested he might have PTSD – something that hadn't occurred to him because he hadn't visited a war zone – Dan contacted Veterans' Affairs and was eventually diagnosed with the condition.

As he began the treatment process, Dan wasn't able to go outside but still wanted to keep in touch with close friends who shared his love of LEGO. He began live-streaming on Facebook.

"I wanted to stay connected with people and especially the LEGO community because it was so important to me but I didnt want to leave my house. And I couldn't deal with shopping centres and the supermarket and day-to-day things.'

Dan says the one thing that kept him sane in the years following his breakdown was building with LEGO.

"In my mind, it is very therapeutic… It is very tactile. Using your fine motor skills really keeps you in the moment.

"When I'm building LEGO, I can just sit in my room, be comfortable, be safe, and not worry too much about the outside world.'

Where to get help:

Need to Talk? Free call or text 1737 any time to speak to a trained counsellor, for any reason.

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 or text HELP to 4357

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7) or text 4202

Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)

Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email talk@youthline.co.nz

What's Up: free counselling for 5 to 19 years old, online chat 11am-10.30pm 7days/week or free phone 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 9428 787 11am-11pm Asian Family Services: 0800 862 342 Monday to Friday 9am to 8pm or text 832 Monday to Friday 9am - 5pm. Languages spoken: Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi and English.

Rural Support Trust Helpline: 0800 787 254

Healthline: 0800 611 116

Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

OUTLine: 0800 688 5463 (6pm-9pm)

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.