Mental health is a hot topic right now and there have been a number of attempts made to try and destigmatise the subject, including support from William, Kate and Harry in their Heads Together campaign. Just last month Theresa May announced major government action to improve care and support for people struggling with mental illness including work with employers to improve understanding and in schools to help combat bullying, pressure of social media and exam stress. It is hoped that 2017 will be the turning point for changing the nation’s attitudes towards mental health and an end what Prince William describes as the “keep quiet and carry on” culture.
Of course you don’t need to be a politician, prince or princess to be an advocate of good mental health and in order understand a little more about the issue, I’ve joined with local grass roots charity, Bath Mind.
Before we go any further however I want you to get a few things clear in your mind, if they aren't already. A mental health problem can be anything from anxiety, depression to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. The idea of ‘me’ and ‘them’ in mental illness also needs to go, as the odds are that we will all experience pressure on our mental health at some point in our lives. In fact 1 in 4 people suffer from a mental health problem each year and so it is likely that, if not you, then at least one of your friends, colleagues or loved ones is affected. Recognising it, talking about it and taking action can literally save lives. To do just that let us hone in on the valley of the River Avon and the lovely folk at Bath Mind.
Like many visitors to Bath I was wowed by the city’s beauty with its honey coloured stone, quirky shops, cobbled alleyways and the grandeur of its georgian architecture and roman baths. Even its second-rate rugby team** did not perturb me from relocating here earlier this month. As one of Bath’s newest residents I was keen to understand more about the city’s people and what lies beneath the ostensible affluence of this world heritage site.
Bath Mind’s Green Links project invites people to “come along to our garden for the pleasure of going and picking produce, friendship, learning and some time away from the daily stresses of life”. Armed with wellington boots (procured only last week from the Trussell Trust charity shop), fleece, old trousers and a mighty fine waterproof, I venture in to do just that.
The first person I meet at the allotment in Oldfield Park is Jack*. Jack is currently staying with Julian House, a charity set up to help the most marginalised people in society, the homeless. Jack describes an underbelly of drugs, prostitution and violence in pockets of the city, with five areas falling within the most deprived 20% of the country and homelessness a growing problem. Jack attributes his entanglement in this subculture and the difficulties he faced navigating a “disjointed and confusing” support system (his words), as the reason he resorted to living for several months in a tent in the woods. Indeed Jack candidly admits that the simplicity of the arrangement had been for a long time more appealing than trying to get his head around how to go about re-entering society. Through Julian House and the Green Links allotment project, Jack has again found a sense of ownership and with their support has been able to see things more clearly. He tells me that this will sadly be his last visit to the allotment because, given his history, he does not feel safe in the area. Now armed with a better understanding of his mental illness and support from these charities, Jack is hopeful that a relocation to Dorset is in sight and I very much hope it works out for him.
The importance of a safe and stable home environment on your mental health cannot be underestimated and the impact of social disparity and the jeopardy of a life on the street on the mind is indeed worthy of its own blog entry. However it is important to understand that not all people helped by Bath Mind are in such extreme situations and to remind ourselves that mental illness does not discriminate on age, gender, race or income.
To best illustrate this point I met with Stuart*, a former high ranking civil servant who retired early on the grounds of ill health and depression. Stuart found it difficult to meet the demands of his former employer and was unable to switch off in the evenings and weekends. A feeling I am sure many reading this will be able relate a little to. The enormity of outstanding tasks played constantly on Stuart’s mind until he ultimately broke down. After losing his job, Stuart’s self-esteem took a knock and he was in a pretty dark place. Stuart was signposted to the Green Links project where he finally found head space and peace in the outdoors. The social side of the allotment project he says has gradually helped to rebuild his confidence and in fact it was the journey up to the allotment itself that ultimately got Stuart back on track. Each week Stuart would pass a community bus service and think to himself “I could do that one day”. Through support and encouragement from Sirona and Bath Mind, Stuart began volunteering as a driver and now works for the bus service part time. He describes the day he came off benefits and back into work as a pivotal one, in which he finally overcome the hurdles of his mental health and could once again make a contribution to society.
Alongside success stories such as Stuart's, there is an altogether simpler and somewhat heartening sense of pride and community ownership of the allotment amongst the people working on it. Amanda and Carol ensure everyone has a say in making decisions, from what plants to plant to the design of the new pergola. As well as learning new skills, the project brings together people from all backgrounds and builds friendships, confidence and a fosters a (deeply infectious) community spirit.
From field to plate, I join Judith for Bath Mind’s Food for Thought class in St John’s Hall. The class is run in conjunction with Genesis Trust, another exceptionally valuable local charity that I would love to spend longer with. For the moment however please note that Genesis Trust help over 3,000 people a year affected by homelessness, poverty and mental health issues in Bath though projects including soup runs, foodbanks, life skills, lifeline and drop-ins.
Before winning this job I had not stepped into a cookery class since GCSE food - where each lesson we were rather pre-occupied daring each other to eat a spoonful of a different spice (I recall garlic, chilli powder and cinnamon being particularly painful weeks!). Mercifully my cooking partners at Food for Thought were somewhat kinder. I paired up with Rex and Stephen to tackle an epic chocolate pudding whilst the rest of the class took on potato and cheese pie, homemade baked beans and coleslaw.
After we’d whisked, folded, chopped, stirred, poured, splattered, baked and washed up we sat down together to chat and tuck into the fruits of our labour. The food was a triumph and the sort of dishes I’d be proud to serve up to family and friends. It was intriguing to learn of the very different paths that had brought people to Food for Thought. The table conversation topics were truly as diverse as our merry motley crew of cooks, as I learnt about local music, indian spices and the electronics of a furbie! After leaving I was surprised to learn that one or two of the group who I had been speaking to suffer from schizophrenia and it just illustrated to me the often invisible nature of mental illness and my own preconceptions. Whilst the problems within the group vary significantly, every person gets to create top drawer food and in doing so help themselves and each other to improve confidence and wellbeing.
Admitting to ourselves when we are struggling can often be difficult, maybe because it does not fit with the idea or perception of who we are or who we need to be. Too many people with mental health difficulties do not talk about them for fear of shame, isolation and judgement and I have been privileged this week to have listened to some incredibly moving stories.
With #timetotalk day yesterday, if you take nothing else from this blog away then please think on this. Your friend posting those smug baby pictures has post natal depression, your colleague is stressed, your ‘grumpy’ neighbour is bipolar and your brother has depression. I have learnt this week that people all around us are struggling with mental illness. Be open and bold about your own mental health and be ready to listen and talk to others about theirs, doing this can make a positive difference for all of us.
This week I’ve cooked, weeded and planted, chatted at support groups and got all arty in 44AD studios. It has really given me an idea of the breadth of this little charity's reach. Behind a bright red door up in the eaves of an old Bath building Kate, Jackie, Ailsa, Paul, Hannah, Judith and the team work tirelessly with their army of volunteers to guide local people through the welfare system, build independence through their care homes, wellbeing in their projects and above all fight to improve the mental health of those within their reach.
If you need help with any of the issues raised in the blog then please contact Mind on 0300 123 3393
If you’re in the Bath area and are looking for volunteer opportunities then please get in contact because both Bath Mind and Genesis Trust could use your help in running their projects (and take it from me they’re a really top bunch!)
* Names have been changed to protect identities
** (Just my opinion as a Gloucester rugby fan!)