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
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.
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.’
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.