Mind over natter: the English town with a big mental health plan | World news
“A minister, a pub landlord and a mayor … it sounds like the start of a really bad joke, doesn’t it?”
The Rev Matt Finch laughs as he recalls the origins of a novel attempt to create a paragon of mental health in the small Cambridgeshire parish of St Ives. The three men – who walked not into a bar but a coffee shop – are trying to bring a smile back to the face of a community that has suffered its share of recent blows.
As a collective, they hope their string of initiatives to reach people in their darkest hour could establish St Ives as a model town for others to emulate, in an age of growing mental discomfort.
An old market town around 12 miles north-west of Cambridge – population 16,384, according to the 2011 census – St Ives is venerable enough to feature in the Domesday Book. Back then it was known as Slepe. There have been some rude awakenings of late.
In April last year 28-year-old Carl Malik, a popular regular at Floods, the pub at which Phil Pope worked his way up from teenage glass collector to proprietor, took his own life; a loss compounded by the suicide of his father Kevin seven years earlier. Last December, 26-year-old Adam Hyde, a keen cricketer for St Ives and Warboys cricket club, did the same.
Tim Drye, who replaced Pope as mayor in May 2018 – and whose son was a friend of Carl’s – decided it was time to act. “It resonated with me,” he says. “I’d had mental health issues of my own at university. I said something in my speech about supporting a few existing charities and wanting to make St Ives a better place for mental health and to do something, not knowing what it would be. That phrase created a ripple that spread to others.”
Finch was one. A textbook trendy vicar, boyish, with tousled locks and a ready smile, Finch marked his 40th birthday by cycling from London to Paris for Calm, the Campaign against Living Miserably. Wearing Calm’s T-shirt initiated conversations that brought home just how many people struggle with mental health. “In all, 84 men under 45 take their lives every week in the UK – and no one talks about it,” he says. “If this was affecting the baby-boomer generation, or retired people, we’d be all over it.
“So, Tim and I said: ‘Let’s try to make St Ives a Calm Town.’ Around 50 people – including Carl’s mum – came to our first meeting, which drew out people’s details, interests, gifts and talents. We planned another and invited people to be part of a guiding team.”
That sparked a network of spontaneous activity, as Amanda Mumford, a hydrologist with a cheery smile and winningly self-deprecating manner, explains. “I’d been reading one of those books you pick up in Waterstones, written by the CEO of the Danish Institute for Happiness – there was a chapter about getting to know your neighbours, and building communities,” she says. “Not long before there was a lady on our street whose husband had died. I wanted to knock on her door, but wasn’t sure I’d know what to say, which seemed a real shame.”
Inspired by the meeting, Mumford decided to get everyone together. “So, last Christmas, we took a drinks invitation to every house on our street – 46 in all – just to pop in, low-key, on a Saturday for a mince pie. We thought: ‘What’s the worst that can happen? No one will come and we’ll have a load of mince pies.’ But people showed up – including many who have lived on the street for years, decades, and hadn’t met each other. I think there’s a lot of loneliness out there – and it can be easier to open up to people you don’t know well.”
On a sultry night in late summer, the Calm Town team gather at Floods to discuss their push for the autumn. Monday is market day in St Ives. Under the stern gaze of Oliver Cromwell’s statue in the market square – the erstwhile lord protector once lived here – local people go about their business. Once cattle and grain were traded by those going to St Ives. Now, against a backdrop of high street staples such as Wetherspoons and Greggs, they rummage among anything from Turkish towels to “Graveside vases – £2” and boxes of batteries, cooking foil, coin holders and assorted frippery.
It’s still early days for Calm Town – the group admit they are finding their feet – but they are clearly energised and exercised by giving structure to their simple initiatives: group walks, coffee mornings and signposts to help.
The junior section at Warboys cricket club now sport caps with the Calm Town logo; there are school tie-ins where seven-year-olds are pen pals with 97-year-olds. Discussions are going on about establishing the group as a charitable trust.
The committee natter about their Facebook page, whether a separate website is required, and where the “calm couch” – a customised sofa taken to local events – is wanted next. It’s all very English, very polite and, it has to be said, motivational.
“If we can develop a culture in our town now that it’s OK to talk – and my 12- and eight-year-old sons grow up realising that this is how you spot if your mate’s struggling – that could be an amazing 10-year project,” Finch enthuses. “We’ll be a town that has a vocabulary around mental health when starting conversations is often the most difficult part.
“What we’re about is a movement for change – and I think any town, any village can do what we’ve done. It’s just saying: ‘We care passionately about this.’”
Pope’s next wishlist item is mental health first-aid training courses for local businesses, having been on one himself. “I haven’t had one person say no,” he says. “You might sit in a hairdresser’s chair for up to an hour – they’re the kind of people who really are going to be able to tell where you’re at.”
When I suggest to Drye that it’s reminiscent of the Games Makers, the volunteers who so enlivened the 2012 Olympics, he agrees wholeheartedly. “And I was so cynical about that!” he says.
“But the wonderful thing is that it’s triggered a lot of really creative people. I was back in my home town, Barnsley, the other day, thinking: ‘How could you make that work here?’
“St Ives is a very good place to live – a nice vibrant town with a good economy – you’ve not got that there. Still, if it only encourages some people to give it a shot, and they make the place better than it was, that’s a good enough place to be.”
Besides Mumford’s “meet the street” initiative – a forthcoming community barbecue has garnered several offers of help – there are calm walks, courtesy of yoga and pilates teacher Nicola Guitart, weekly 25-minute strolls from the top of the town with rallying points.
Lisa Valla, head of Eastfield infant and nursery school, holds a monthly calm coffee morning for parents to come and chat. “If you just put ‘free cake’ and ‘I promise we won’t speak to you, you’re just there to chat to each other’, you get them in,” she laughs. Designer and art gallery assistant Laura Bridgens feels planting the seed is as critical as the work itself, especially for a group who are, essentially, enthusiastic volunteers.
“There’s a danger of trying to do too much,” she says. “Calm cuppa, calm walk, meet the street, first-aiders – linking Calm Town to the school community, pointing people to links with teenage mental health – that’s enough for now. If we clarify and crystallise the simple things we’re trying to do and do them really well, then, hopefully, it should grow organically.”
Drye agrees. “It’s a group of people who’ve grasped the nettle and run with it,” he says. “There’s a lot of interest in trying to see how a ground-up approach to mental health might complement a strategy developed by somebody in the NHS to try to impose on the location.
“What’s surprised me is how many different things are already in place, like the NHS 111 option 2, where you can ring up and talk to somebody – I’d never heard of that. If all we end up doing is raising awareness of some of these professional groups, then that would be really good.”
Mumford adds: “Because we’re still relatively new, very amateur, we’re still trying to work out exactly what Calm Town is – and what it isn’t. But it’s brought together people interested in making a difference. There aren’t many of us and it’s quite challenging, but it’s got legs.
“If you just make a little effort to do something, you can make a big difference – and helping people makes you feel good.
“We want to inspire people to develop their own initiatives and do them in their own way, whatever works for them, rather than dictating what people should do, or doing it for them.”
The steering group winds up – monthly responsibilities and checklists are doled out, farewells are said. On the River Great Ouse that has flowed past the Grade II-listed Floods beer garden for centuries, a gull alights on the surface, creating a ripple illuminated by the rays of a brightly fading sun. All is calm.
• In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can contact the mental health charity Mind by calling 0300 123 3393 or visiting mind.org.uk. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org
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