I have had many pleasant surprises in the last year or so which make me feel that, at last, a sea change in consciousness really is afoot. Most recently, I felt particularly inspired by the courage of a number of men at an event run by our local mental health trust.
After a morning of professional presentations that were interesting but delivered in the standard format, supported by Powerpoint displays, I’d been about to check my phone messages and was waiting impatiently for the coffee break (as we often tend to, if we’re honest, around eleven o’clock on day-long training and conference days), when the sandy haired chap sitting in front of me – billed on the programme as ‘The Right Worshipful Mayor of Bath (Councillor William Sandry)’ – was introduced to us.
It was an hour or so into the proceedings and people were already teetering on the brink of information overload. However, as soon as he began to speak, Will Sandry grabbed my attention. After telling us it felt like a personal achievement to be standing up front there (in his regalia, as chief civic dignitary), he proceeded to tell us why. In an open, everyday manner, he spoke about past hospitalizations he’s experienced personally. He began his story in 2002, when he was first admitted to an acute psychiatric ward, detailed incidents from 2009 and finally told us that, just the year before last, he’d become so unwell that hospital had seemed like the only option for his safe-keeping and care.
“I know the terrors of psychosis, the pains of paranoia … ” he assured us and, from something in his tone and his bearing as well as his words, we could feel the authenticity of his words. By this time I had temporarily forgotten about the mayor business and been totally drawn into this humble and genuine human being’s account of his experiences, his reflections and demonstration of the wisdom he evidently gained. Adversity can certainly be a tremendous teacher and leveller, and the majority in that audience who were no stranger to Frost’s ‘road less travelled’ inwardly acknowledged that this man was a fellow traveller.
Moving on to discuss David Cameron’s speech following the February 15th ‘Mental Health Taskforce’ report, Will pointed out that, if someone were to take the passages where the Prime Minister was directly referencing mental health concerns and substitute the vocabulary routinely used to discuss cancer, Cameron’s words would be unlikely to include statements acceptable to cancer sufferers. So why should they be considered acceptable as far as mental ill health is concerned? The mayor was addressing the increasing call, and need, for ‘parity of esteem’ – that is: for those with an invisible illness like mental ill health to be treated with the same respect and concern, and in as timely a manner, as those who are physically unwell
“I was a bit disappointed. For instance,” he asked rhetorically, “ is a 10% reduction in suicides an acceptable target? … and while I was glad to see concern about prejudice and discrimination against racial minorities was expressed, there was nothing about the LGBT population – no mention. Yet they are 6% of the population, and I count myself among them”.
By this point I was feeling pretty stunned by this speaker’s candour and courage, and I know others were too. I saw appreciative and supportive comments on Twitter later. What he had told us in the brief five or ten minutes in which he’d been addressing us would still be referred to by many in that audience today as ‘disclosure’ – though why should it be? It makes no sense to me. You wouldn’t have to disclose to people that last year you were in hospital with cancer. While I realise mental and physical health are not simplistically comparable, and indeed health can only meaningfully be addressed holistically, the closeting of emotional pain and turmoil has fuelled stigma and traditionally made people feel guilty about mental illness … as if it’s their fault. Imagine having to disclose you were heterosexual too, if the tables were turned … how that would feel. There are too many instances of double standards still oppressing us all on many levels, and a lot of these were dealt a resounding blow by Will’s humility, down-to-earth manner and honesty.
When the status quo – the ‘norm’ of cultures – is challenged from positions of power, strong shockwaves are emanated with far-reaching effect. I saw before me today a man who had not sought his current position through any vanity or ambition to gain power for unwholesome reasons, but rather had trodden a path of integrity and extraordinary courage that led him to this place where he is right now perfectly positioned to exert influence for positive change. Consequently, having attained this significant position, he has proposed that his theme for the year will be mental wellbeing: supporting the mental health initiatives that take place locally, pursuing his own projects and keeping a keen eye on how the national backdrop is developing.
For a man with his enhanced understanding of all that needs to change, his sensitivity, and such a personal interest in the issues involved to have been awarded this office and be exerting influence armed with hard-earned wisdom and insight won through having previously lost almost everything, including his liberty, things must be evolving in the wider society – locally, at least. It’s hard to imagine this circumstance having occurred round here at any time in the past.
I guess I’d assumed that the office of mayor was an outmoded, essentially ceremonial post consisting largely of attending functions and making innocuous, ornamental speeches. Well that’s not how it is this year in Bath, anyhow. Will’s contribution was political in the best possible sense – it was direct, honest, switched on, current and inspirational. He rearranging any preconceptions the audience might have had in a few short minutes and obliquely challenged us to question our assumptions.
In the afternoon, our attention was riveted by another young man who has known more than his share of suffering. Jonny Benjamin has also been close to the edge a number of times and come out the other side stronger; empowered to tell his story. He spoke about having felt different from others, ‘like an outcast’, at school. Jonny is also gay, so some of the strain he told us that he felt under would presumably have been about processing his emotions concerning his sexuality. We tend to forget that even a decade or two ago the pressures on those who are not heterosexual were greater than they are now, and yet still things are very far from conducive in the second decade of the 21st Century. Even now statistics tell us that getting on for half of all 16-24 year old LGBT (Lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans) young people have considered suicide.
As an adolescent, a prescription drug Jonny was given for acne made him feel lethargic, low and ‘sometimes completely overwhelmed by emotion’. “I didn’t know what mental health was”, he remarked “but I knew things weren’t right”. At the age of 17 having tried to hang himself, he was granted one appointment with the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) and then simply parked on an interminable waiting list for psychological therapy” … and just left”. A far too common phenomenon. “I gave up.” he said.
He moved from London to Manchester (the new location, in his mind, representing “a place where none of these problems would exist”), living the ‘normal’ student life on the outside ‘but spiralling inside’. GPs tried out different antidepressants whilst he ended up resorting to self harm and alcohol. “It’s amazing how much you can mask,” he reflected. Meanwhile he was getting more and more isolated.
In his third year at university, Jonny told us that he ended up in the middle of a dual carriageway running up and down the central reservation with no control of his body or speech. The police intercepted him and took him to A&E. There were no beds, so he was sent home! Luckily his flatmates were in and sat up half the night talking to him, but they had no idea how to handle the situation. They arranged for him to go back to his parents the next day and they, unable to think of alternative courses of action, referred him to mental health services. This resulted in a sobering label: ‘schizoaffective disorder’ (somewhere between ‘schizophrenia’ and ‘bipolar disorder’. To me, this is a “we can’t decide” designation which draws attention to the fact that doctors regularly disagree about diagnoses. In addition they are often changed a number of times, as behaviours tick different boxes).
Jonny told us:
“I couldn’t tell anybody. I was so ashamed. By this time I’d completely given up. I felt I was too far gone and that there was no way back. It was the worst time of my life.” He ended up in hospital, where he noticed no one seemed to be getting better. The burden of the stigmatizing and alarming diagnosis, coupled with the fact no one seemed able to offer any real help, at first caused Jonny to cling to the relative ‘safety’ of the hospital, but after a month or two he made a suicide plan and ran away.
A man who saved Jonny’s life by eventually persuading him to climb back over the railings of Waterloo Bridge did so by simply talking to him as one human being to another. The stranger started by speaking about himself and incredibly it turned out they’d lived about 10 minutes apart as children. He was persistent and offered his own belief in Jonny; a flicker of hope. “He listened, and gave me space,” reflected Jonny, “In hospital they just said ‘We’re going to up your medication!’ I felt really safe with this guy”. Eventually Jonny’s personal Samaritan got through to him with the reassurance, “Look mate, I believe you can get better”, and the suggestion they go for a coffee together. He helped Jonny back over the edge.
What happened next played out like a scene from a gruelling action film, though. I still find it hard to believe, but once the wheels of the establishment’s stock responses are in motion we all know it’s almost impossible to put a brake on. “There were suddenly police all over the place,” Jonny recalled, “They charged for me. It was very distressing. I tried to get back over the parapet, but there was no time. I was taken to the local hospital and sectioned”.
I can only shake my head. Jonny’s experiences with the statutory services reads like a litany of disaster and, had a suicide attempt succeeded, I believe the authorities would have been very largely to blame. But happily the incident with the kind and calm man who had befriended him planted a grain of hope that had been missing before, and over time Jonny got much better.
The fuller story is explored in the Channel 4 film, The Stranger On The Bridge. Jonny finally came through the turbulent years realising he has a lot to share (with a healthy respect for his, perhaps, enhanced vulnerability to relapse, and an understanding of our need to look after ourselves extra specially when we have been so severely compromised). Nowadays he spends most of his working time out encouraging others.
He shared with us some shocking stats. Statistics are necessarily always approximate and constantly changing, but they give us a ballpark picture at a given time:
– There are seventeen suicides in the UK every day; it’s the biggest killer of men under 50.
– Every 20 minutes a young person tries to take his/her own life,
– The rates of depression amongst teenagers have risen 70% in the last 25 years.
As someone pointed out at the end of Jonny’s account, the encounter on Waterloo Bridge was – on one very significant level, at least – simply a story about two blokes in the street. We can, and have responsibility to, be there for one another; just to talk, be silently supportive or do whatever’s appropriate.
The reincarnated Jonny is an author and vlogger who goes around talking to groups like ours, in prisons, educational establishments and so on, and is a founder member of the Thinkwell initiative which takes mental health awareness into schools “creating an culture where people can talk”.
Jonny remarked that our area seems progressive on the mental health care front. It’s a fairly recent development, but I do have to agree things are beginning to get better and are demonstrating the potential to be able to improve a great deal more.
The event was rounded off by the Clinical Director for Mental Health, psychiatrist Bill Bruce-Jones. Having stood in town on World Mental Health Day last year giving out ‘smiley teary’ badges, with Bill and another senior psychiatrist, for the Only Us Campaign I felt warm inside realising that Bill has embraced its central philosophy as he spoke about, “building not just services we are proud to work in, but services we’d be happy to use ourselves when the occasion requires it”.
He finished by sharing one of the campaign’s key slogan’s (a realist’s variation on the tediously reiterated, misleading and, in fact, stigmatising statistic – ‘1 in 4 will have a mental health problem in their lifetime’):
” Not one in four; four in four”.
This levelling message recognises that we are all human, and every one of us has our limits of endurance.
The morning after this meeting, walking in the nearby park, I met an elderly neighbour who mentioned that her daughter was at the funeral of a young man who had been popular and seemed happy. (“I say young‘, she said, “I’m almost 80 now!”) Everyone had liked him at work. But like many people, and particularly many men, he had obviously kept his feelings to himself.
“His boyfriend had just left him, so that might have tipped the balance,” she reflected.
Isolation, stigma and the lack of relatable, un-patronising and potentially anonymous, non-drug-focussed services are still killers. In our area , we have the excellent small charities Suicide Crisis in Cheltenham and Save Our Soldier (a national charity for the military and emergency services), which is based in Bath. Both address suicidality and there will be many other laudable small organisations too, but the biggest problem is not knowing about them at the time of need …
It’s only when we have a change of heart and focus as a society that things will start to shift for real. While the winds of change might be starting to blow, we need a veritable tsunami (with the force to sweep away the old order and create an environment which encourages and favours brave, tender independent growth) in order to effect the paradigm shift that’s clearly necessary.
Meantime, it is worth remembering that we are all vulnerable, and those who come through their darkest times and emerge with a light to shine for others are our greatest treasure.