A reason for us to be cheerful

MIDDLESBROUGH’S Citizen of the Year awards ceremony is what I call a “battery-recharging” event. It’s a chance to celebrate the voluntary work done by people giving their time, day in, day out, to make the lives of their fellow-citizens that little bit better.

It is a reminder to everyone in public life why we are here and what we should aim for. It brightens up a dark January evening and gives us all hope there might be brighter times ahead.

This year the award went to Catherine Haigh who, for the past two years, has been a volunteer with the Hearts and Minds project, run by Middlesbrough and Stockton Mind.

Hearts and Minds, as its name suggests, aims to challenge the myths and stigma about mental heath and educate people about the realities of the problem. It is a support group open to anyone who has mental health issues This is absolutely vital work.

One-in-four people will experience a mental health issue at some time during their life. If a physical ailment was equally prevalent, it would never be off the news. It would be the number one political priority. But mental health remains the subject we’re reluctant to talk about.

Things are changing. The same night I gave Caroline her award, Andrew Flintoff was on national TV candidly discussing the depression and anxiety that he and other sports stars had experienced. That just wouldn’t have happened 20 or 30 years ago.

It is good that people in the public eye speak openly and honestly about mental health. Money can’t buy you peace of mind.

The world inhabited by Flintoff and other celebrities is a very different universe from the one that the people helped by Hearts and Minds live in. But, as the programme showed, mental anguish can bring them to the same lonely, frightening place. It is one you can only get out of with support and understanding from family, friends and volunteers like Caroline and her colleagues.

I hope neither you nor your loved ones ever find yourself in that place, but it’s clear that many of us will in the next few years.

Ask any worker in a Citizens’ Advice Bureau or local authority money advice service about their caseload and just watch their expression.

The story from every agency is the same. They are experiencing record highs.

What is more, the calls for help are coming from people who never believed they would have money problems..

Debt, stress, unemployment, fear of losing your job and family breakdown will inevitably cause an increase in mental illhealth that we have to prepare for.

We can do that by ensuring that organisations like MIND still get the public and financial support that they need.

It’s vital too that we develop health services that treat the whole person and acknowledge the link between mental and physical wellbeing.

Services and money are important but so is a new attitude to mental health. In the hard times we live in, politicians know there are votes to be won by talking tough.

But that shouldn’t turn into scapegoating, blaming people for being ill and needing support.

At times, we’ve come too close to doing that for comfort. We need to remember that there’s no immunity to mental ill-health.

Today, tomorrow it could be me or you and we’ll need support and sympathy. With people like Caroline and the other folk in Hearts and Minds, we are sure to get it. And that is something to feel good about.

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