Grass roots MIND­SET

With bud­get cuts in men­tal health pro­vi­sion the new norm, com­mu­ni­ties are qui­etly ral­ly­ing. Their goal? To fu­ture-proof our col­lec­tive men­tal health

Women's Health (UK) - - STRONG MIND - words POORNA BELL il­lus­tra­tion BARRY DOWNARD

The gath­er­ing doesn’t look ex­cep­tional. The ta­ble is groan­ing with food, con­ver­sa­tion pro­duces a pleas­ant hum and the reg­u­lar­ity with which the host, Eleanor Simms, is dash­ing be­tween ta­ble and oven sug­gests dessert isn’t far off. To any on­looker, this is the usual dance of a din­ner party. And yet, be­yond the small talk about work, fam­ily and week­end plans, some big talk is hap­pen­ing here, too. When Eleanor asks you how you are, she re­ally does want to hear the an­swer. Eleanor is co-founder of MindFull Sup­per, an or­gan­i­sa­tion and move­ment that recog­nises that while men­tal health is a hot topic, that doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily trans­late to the aver­age per­son dis­cussing the con­tents of their own mind. It’s why Eleanor en­cour­ages and ad­vises peo­ple on how to host din­ner par­ties with a dif­fer­ence: spa­ces free from judge­ment, where guests can talk about how they’re re­ally feel­ing – and which are hav­ing an im­pact. ‘A friend threw one for her col­leagues one day,’ says Eleanor. ‘Some­one she man­ages re­vealed that she had a rare per­son­al­ity dis­or­der pre­vi­ously kept hid­den. That em­ployee said she didn’t know she could be open about some­thing like that, but as it was a men­tal health event, she felt it was a safe space to share.’ Mind-full Sup­per is part of a men­tal health move­ment that’s knock­ing on a door near you. While the NHS is stretched pa­per thin, some­thing spe­cial is hap­pen­ing in town halls, parks and cafes – diminu­tive in size, but not in im­pact. In bar­bers, bike shops and sup­per clubs, com­mu­ni­ties are com­ing to­gether, and or­gan­i­sa­tions are be­ing founded. Glas­gow’s Com­mon Wheel of­fers art projects for peo­ple deal­ing with men­tal ill­ness, while the char­ity Our­mala uses yoga to help refugees in the cap­i­tal re­build their lives. Even Lon­don­ers have started talk­ing to each other. Take Men­tal Health Mates, an ini­tia­tive that in­spires out­door mee­tups, where you can walk and talk about your feel­ings. Or Fraz­zled Cafe – fort­nightly meet­ings across the UK with the tagline, ‘It’s OK not to be OK.’ The aim of all this? To en­sure ev­ery­one has some­one to talk to, to ask them how they’re re­ally feel­ing.

Lo­cal heroes

The tim­ing is apt. Be­tween 2013 and 2014, some 40% of NHS trusts had their men­tal health bud­gets cut, ac­cord­ing to think tank The King’s Fund. And while the govern­ment has pledged to in­crease the NHS bud­get by £20 bil­lion a year, a quick fix it isn’t, as min­is­ters plan to have the ex­tra cash in place by 2023. Hap­pily, some­where be­tween your GP surgery and #self­care­sun­day, there’s a gap. Delve be­neath the sur­face of most com­mu­nity or­gan­i­sa­tions and there’s a fa­mil­iar theme: they’re pop­u­lated by peo­ple who know first-hand the toll of men­tal ill­ness; who are get­ting in­volved so the next per­son has a safety net strong enough. Peo­ple like 38-yearold jour­nal­ist Bry­ony Gor­don. Ear­lier this year, she in­vited a group of strangers to meet her at the Lido Cafe in Hyde Park. Acutely aware of the pos­i­tive im­pact the out­doors was hav­ing on her own men­tal health af­ter years of bat­tling de­pres­sion and OCD, she sent an in­vi­ta­tion, via a tweet, to any­one with men­tal health is­sues to meet her for a walk on Valen­tine’s Day. Some 20 peo­ple showed up. Six months on, meet-ups are hap­pen­ing na­tion­wide. ‘I knew there were peo­ple like me out there, but I had no idea how to find them,’ says Bry­ony. ‘It was a bit of an act of des­per­a­tion. I was like, “I know I’m not mad. I know this is an ill­ness like any other. So where do I find the proof ?”’ To watch Eleanor host­ing a Mind-full Sup­per event, you wouldn’t know what she was

up against this time last year. In Septem­ber 2017, her fi­ancé Ben took his own life. ‘Ben had de­pres­sion on and off for 10 years, but lots of peo­ple never knew,’ she says. ‘His death threw me into the spot­light of talk­ing about men­tal health. I had to fig­ure out how to talk about sui­cide. I re­alised we don’t yet have the lan­guage to speak about it. I be­gan think­ing, “What can we do to cre­ate more spa­ces in which peo­ple can talk about men­tal health?”’ Since her first event in the sum­mer, 15 have fol­lowed, and more than 200 peo­ple have at­tended one – the only re­quire­ment as a guest is that you make a do­na­tion to the char­ity Mind. ‘I don’t want this to be seen as a cure for de­pres­sion,’ adds Eleanor. ‘But it’s cre­at­ing more op­por­tu­ni­ties to talk about how you’re re­ally feel­ing.’

Lion talk

Eleanor’s story speaks of the lin­ger­ing stigma that per­sists around male men­tal ill­ness. A ma­jor sur­vey com­mis­sioned by the Men­tal Health Foun­da­tion in 2016 found that men are less likely than women to dis­close a men­tal health prob­lem to fam­ily and friends. They are also less likely to seek treat­ment. It’s a trou­bling statis­tic that be­comes all the more sober­ing when you learn that sui­cide is the sin­gle big­gest cause of death for men un­der 45. It’s a fact that’s driv­ing the con­cept of The Li­ons Bar­ber Col­lec­tive, an or­gan­i­sa­tion aim­ing to equip bar­bers with the skills to talk men­tal health with their cus­tomers. It recog­nises that, while men might not talk about their men­tal health to their col­leagues, their mates or even their part­ners, they might just con­fide in the bloke who’s cut­ting their hair. ‘There’s a huge level of trust be­tween a bar­ber and their client – as a bar­ber, you’re al­lowed into their per­sonal space,’ ex­plains founder Tom Chap­man. ‘We hope to give men an op­por­tu­nity to open up and off­load in a non­clin­i­cal, non-judge­men­tal en­vi­ron­ment. Bar­bers re­ceive a Bar­ber Talk sticker to put in their win­dow and they’ll be added to the Li­ons Bar­ber Col­lec­tive map. But we’re also de­vel­op­ing an on­line train­ing pro­gramme, so bar­bers will be able to learn new skills.’ Th­ese or­gan­i­sa­tions might not make head­lines, but they are mak­ing a dif­fer­ence. For 30-year-old De­nean Rowe, who works for a think tank, Bry­ony’s Men­tal Health Mates walks pro­vide a place where she doesn’t have to ‘edit her­self ’. ‘It helps me to be sur­rounded by peo­ple who un­der­stand what I’m talk­ing about,’ she says. ‘I don’t have to ex­plain how an­tide­pres­sants work, and how drain­ing it is to feel like that. It also gives me a rou­tine. I know that, for one hour a week, I’ll be out with other peo­ple, walk­ing and get­ting some fresh air. There’s no judge­ment. They all ac­cept me when I’m not at my best.’ For oth­ers, the work of th­ese men­tal health heroes is sav­ing lives. Last year, one of Chap­man’s own friends paid him a visit. ‘He was in a sit­u­a­tion I had no idea about un­til he came and sat in my chair and told me ev­ery­thing,’ he re­calls. ‘I lis­tened and talked; I told him about the col­lec­tive and what we were do­ing. I later learnt that he was in­tend­ing to take his own life af­ter that hair­cut. Think­ing about what I’d said was enough to make him get in his car, drive to his par­ents’ house and tell them ev­ery­thing. That’s when the jour­ney to re­cov­ery be­gan for him.’ Con­sider the power of big talk and you won­der why we ever wasted time on the small kind.

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