FOLLOWING the death of Hollywood star Robin Williams, there has been an outpouring from those suffering from depression. NATHAN BRIANT talks to Gwent organisations who lend a helping hand.
IT IS surely now well known, after several charity campaigns and other public awareness drives, that one quarter of people are suffering from mental health difficulties at any one time.
Occasionally, well known people apparently being in the grip of mental health problems and taking the most drastic action brings those issues to the top of the news agenda. It was Hollywood actor Robin Williams last week; it was Welsh football manager Gary Speed’s death in November 2011; there have been, tragically, countless others.
Yet it is clear there is action being taken on mental health. Campaigners say despite funding being hard to come by inroads are slowly being made to reduce any possible embarrassment about people sharing their difficulties with colleagues, friends or family they might have had in the past.
At a Monmouthshire council meeting in May three of its councillors spoke of their own difficulties with mental illness. Llanover councillor Sara Jones had proposed the council would be the first in Wales to sign the Time to Change Wales pledge, a Welsh Government-backed initiative to reduce mental health stigma, and said she had struggled herself in the past.
Cllrs John Marshall and Graham Down said they had their own problems too. They said they had been struggling with depression, on and off, for some time - but were able to share it in a council meeting.
The council will officially sign the pledge in September and a number of events will be held across their buildings in Usk and Magor.
Cllr Jones said: “We are going to be doing the pledge signing event in September on the day of the full council meeting. There will be a whole day of activities and to complement that we are going to have an action plan to make sure we reduce the stigma in the workplace.
“I think it’s just started to open up lines of communication. There is lots more to be done. But it must not be over just one day.”
Cllr Jones talks about one of Time to Change Wales’ champion educators and Raglan resident Beverley Jones, who spoke to senior council officers at a meeting to discuss the pledge.
And Ms Jones said: “I was one of the fortunate ones.”
She said the treatment she had from her doctor in Raglan was “second to none” – but the wait for treatment on the NHS for counselling was too long and she had to seek private counselling: she was told she was two weeks away from being hospitalised. But she has overcome her difficulties and is a now a life coach.
She added: “I do events now and people come up to me and they start to talk about their depression.
“My depression has given me a voice. We have got to talk about it. I never thought it would affect me. I was like everyone else.”
All five Gwent councils pooled their resources and signed up to one mental health strategy in 2012 – Together for Mental Health in Gwent – which will continue until 2017. And there are other places where people can turn if they are in need. They can seek help with the NHS or private care if they are able to. Other volunteer organisations can also help.
The director of the Newport and Gwent Samaritans branch, Peter Edmunds, has volunteered at their base in Stow Hill for six years and has been its director for three of those.
He said on average the centre receives about 20,000 calls a year – roughly 50 a day - and the Newport branch has 80 volunteers. And there is other demand for the charity’s text message and email services. The charity has 201 branches across the UK.
He said people are now willing to talk when they might not have been in the past: “The level of calls has increased. I think it goes in areas of concern sometimes. We are seeing a higher increase in calls with people in debt and that leads on because debt increases upset so the level of emotional calls increase that way. You really never know what we are going to take until that phone rings. People want to talk about many, many things.
“We are there to listen, not to judge; we are not giving advice and it is totally confidential.”
But he said, just as Monmouthshire council is hoping, the stigma attached with mental health is gradually reducing: “I don’t think there’s so much stigma now. I think people understand mental health problems.
“The perception is there that it is a struggle but I think people are more willing to speak about it now and seek support because the support is out there.”
Similarly, another service in Gwent is Newport Mind.
Its chief executive Dave Bland knows there is still work to be done even if it supports about 1,000 people every year across the city.
He said: “We know one in four people experience their mental health problems at any one time...We are not getting to one in four people so there is a lot of people suffering in Newport.”
But the charity has two outreach workers starting soon to boost support one area in which provision has been particularly thin - for young people between 14 and 25.
Others would argue that entire provision is thin. The chief executive of the SANE charity, Marjorie Wallace, said one third of all people with depression are receiving treatment at one time; the rest are being left to suffer.
She said: “If someone arrives at A&E with a suspected heat attack they will be given a bed and treatment. If they are close to suicide and walk in with invisible mental pain, they are left waiting and then in most cases sent away.”
And people’s mental illness can build up and suddenly, inconveniently explode. A lack of immediate support for people who suffer a mental episode in public is demonstrated that sometimes the only way of helping them is to call the police – which some might argue fails to show the care or sympathy required.
And the rate of people being picked up by the police because officers felt the person was at risk Increased in Gwent last year. A Freedom of Information request showed there were 194 people who were detained by Gwent Police because officers felt they were in need of assessment or treatment for a possible mental illness.
The number of people being detained in that way, under section 136 of the Mental Health Act, increased year on year from 2010. Charities have attacked the way that any detainment might make those in need feel like a criminal.
In that sense there are clearly things still to be done. The Aneurin Bevan University Health Board provide 24 hour services while the Welsh Government said they were determined to ensure a number of policies improve services for everyone in the country.
For more information on Newport Mind visit newport-mind.org or call them on 01633 258741. Samaritans are available 24 hours a day and can be called on 01633 259000 or on 08457 90 90 90, emailed on firstname.lastname@example.org or written to on Freepost RSRB-KKBY-CYJK, Chris, PO Box 90 90, Stirling, FK8 2SA.