At Cambridge the our caravan team met several initatives at Milton Country Park for a Sunday morning coffee and chat. I was struck by one of the participant's openness and honesty about her experiences with mental illness at workplace. I listened to Alice tell how she struggled to find understanding and support at her workplace after being diagnosed with depression, eventually being bullied out of her job with a settlement.
After finding no activities or help she found suitable, Alice decided to set up her own organisation, Make Do And Mend to offer the type of support that wasn't available to people experiencing mental distress. The group offers classes in candlemaking, baking, tai chi, computer skills and anything else its members want to teach. The importance of the activities is to enable interaction with peers, other people who have or are still going through mental distress in their lives. But also through making and learning people start to gain back their self-confidence, often to the point of wanting to teach a class themselves.
What I found an important was how quickly Make Do And Mend respond to inquiries – they try and get back in touch with people within a few days to a week, even if it's just to say hello, or as Alice said "have a cup of tea and a chat". Alice said after waiting to get diagnosed, many have to wait from 6 months to a year to get treatment which means a lot of people out of work, isolated and not doing well. This is a current topic as earlier this week the BBC reported on how lack of beds and budget cuts is forcing mental health patients travel hundreds of miles for emergency care – and this is just emergency care, not people on a waiting list.
We spoke at length about the frustrating stigma surrounding mental health and how it is still a taboo to discuss with many people. For example, if a person gets cancer everyone rushes to support them but mental health problems are often misunderstood, ignored, or avoided. Yes, cancer is a serious and tragic illness but let's not forget that mental health illnesses, often invisible to the eye like cancer, can devastate people's lives – and cause deaths. 1 in 4 people in the UK have some level of mental health condition which also makes and important point about the spectrum of conditions: people can have occasional or mild symptoms and might not even be diagnosed with a particular "illness".
I applaud Alice's strength in speaking about her experiences openly and thus contributing to the normalising of mental health as an everyday discussion topic. I hope she continues to inspire others to speak about mental health openly and taking steps in educating themselves about it. I would personally recommend the comic book "Psychiatric Tales" by Daryl Cunningham as a good read into understanding different conditions.
As a last comment I also thought this blog should have a new topic for mental health as it came up during our chats across many initiatives in different places – whether it's about young people stressing about getting a job or migrants coping with the everyday pressure of immediate needs like shelter and food or distrust and harassment by people.