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When the IRA bomb exploded, Darren Swift, an army dog handler in Belfast, had several split-second decisions to make. One of his legs had been blown off; the other, along with two fingers, was hanging by a thread.

His first instinct was to shoot himself, he now readily admits, but unusually, as he was feeding his dog at the time, he was without a weapon. The second was to rip off his remaining leg to enable him to drag his body more quickly to safety.

It is gory, vivid and explicit material to present to a class of 11- and 12-year-olds on a crisp morning in the home counties. But Swift’s story is part of a new project, Making Generation R, where limbless veterans help build resilience in young people.

The idea of building resilience – developing the ability to overcome adversity and recover quickly from challenging situations – alongside academic learning has come and gone in political importance in the past decade. Ever since the schools minister Nick Gibb described the idea of social and emotional learning as “ghastly” in 2007, doubts have been expressed about the value of non-academic education in schools.

But the current education secretary, Damian Hinds, has promoted the idea of “character education”, and the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), which carries out large-scale research projects aimed at breaking the link between disadvantage and lack of achievement, acknowledges that character and resilience are associated with a range of positive outcomes at school and beyond.

The evidence about how these personal characteristics can be developed is mixed. Promising interim results of an EEF project with the London School for Economics, to see how personal, health and social education (PHSE) can be used to improve wellbeing, resilience and motivation, were published at the end of last year.

For Peter Leidig, who runs an extensive PHSE programme at Blenheim school, in Epsom, Surrey, any opportunity to give pupils real-life examples of people who have overcome trauma and challenges is a powerful resource, especially at a time when one in eight young people reportedly has mental health concerns.

“Of course teaching resilience is very difficult,” says Leidig, whose own son was profoundly affected by meeting one of the limbless veterans. “But there is a dearth of good resources in this area, and giving young people an experience unlike their own can be powerful.”

The graphic account of Darren Swift’s injuries is certainly powerful. Reactions from year 8 and 9 pupils at Blenheim veer from concern to open-mouthed fascination as “Swifty” (as he is universally known) walks up to them on his stumps and explains that he went from being 6ft 2in to 4ft 6in in an instant, when a bomb containing semtex, nuts, bolts and rivets was dropped on his head, killing his fellow dog handler instantly.

A Blenheim school pupil thinks about her worries. Photograph: Jill Mead for the Guardian

“Four days later I woke up in a military hospital and remembered everything,” he recalled. “The next 18 months were spent in a rehabilitation unit and it was only when I decided that I needed to become more independent and bathe myself that I saw my reflection in the mirror for the first time and thought: ‘What am I going to do now? I used to be a 6ft strapping soldier, now I have a choice to sit on my backside weeping or crack on and get my life back on track.’”

That positive attitude took him on a gruelling recovery journey that included a solo trike ride across Iceland, becoming a skydiving champion, taking up snowboarding and effectively sticking two fingers up to people who said “you can’t do that without legs”.

But it was getting involved with the Drive Project, which uses the arts to promote mental health, that took Swift in a new direction and into schools all over the country.

The Drive Project’s collaboration with Blesma, the limbless veterans’ charity, involves giving veterans professional training in theatre and storytelling to ensure their sessions have the maximum impact.

According to Blesma’s director of operations, Ian Waller, this is as important for the veterans as for the young people: “Our people spend a lot of time on rehabilitation, focusing in on themselves. But there comes a time when they are ready to look outwards again and want to give back.

“This is a great way for them to redevelop a sense of self worth, to tell their story, to say: look I have been in a bad place, I may not have all the answers but I came back,” he says. “The feedback we get is that the pupils really relate because they are hearing it from people outside school and working it out for themselves.”

Blesma, which was founded after the first world war, raises funds to ensure the programme is free to schools. More than 23,000 pupils have already taken part, and Making Generation R has a target of reaching a further 30,000 young people by the end of this year.

The sessions include opportunities for the pupils to confront their difficult personal issues. In the case of the Blenheim group, body image, social media, bullying and schoolwork came up.

Working with the veterans, pupils are encouraged to think about their own feelings and what they perceived as “helpful” and “unhelpful” strategies to deal with emotional reactions. The students we watched chose communication, friends, asking for help and bonding with a pet, as opposed to lying, hiding emotions and self-harming. They are also taught “mindful” breathing and to focus on one positive response.

Much of the research on developing resilience emphasises that single interventions such as these will only work in schools if reinforced positively throughout lessons and the school’s culture. But the immediate take-away messages from the pupils are positive. “People are worse off then me”, “We are lucky for what we have” and “Life can change so quickly” were universal responses.

For Swifty, the message is clear: “We are not superheroes, just ordinary people to whom a bad thing happened. I had resilience in me – I just had to find it. I am not even sure I would go back to my old life now. I am probably more fulfilled today trying to pass this message on.”

Make Generation R is booking free sessions for schools for the current academic year. It can be contacted through the website

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