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‘I have taken on too much darkness’: SANE founder Marjorie Wallace reveals impact of lifetime’s work in mental health

15:45 08 August 2014

Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of SANE, relaxes at her Highgate home. Picture: Nigel Sutton

Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of SANE, relaxes at her Highgate home. Picture: Nigel Sutton

© Nigel Sutton

The countless glittering awards Marjorie Wallace has won for her decades of fighting for the voiceless and marginalised should line the shelves of her Highgate Village home.

Instead, the 69-year-old surrounds herself with boxes full of letters from those she has helped with her campaigning journalism and as founder of mental health charity SANE.

Just this month, in the same week as receiving a Healthcare Communications Advocate award for her outstanding contribution to public health, the sister of a woman with schizophrenia wrote to Ms Wallace to thank her for her tireless work raising awareness of mental health.

“I feel heartened by your constant presence,” the woman told her.

Ms Wallace said: “I have been tremendously touched by the letters, they’re more important than the awards by a long way.

“There is not much anyone can do to take away the anguish and suffering people have to endure, but when I feel I’ve reached somebody and I’ve meant something to them, and they’ve said it changed their lives, then I suppose I feel very humble.”

Ms Wallace founded SANE in 1986 following her series of articles in The Sunday Times called The Forgotten Illness, which exposed the struggles of people living with mental illness, and the lack of treatment and services available.

“I slept on urine-soaked mattresses in houses where many people had been discharged from hospital,” she remembered. “I saw landlords stealing benefits, and I found people living in terrible Dickensian circumstances.”

She was then inundated with calls from sufferers and their families, who asked her to fight against the government’s controversial care in the community policy, which saw the closure of many traditional institutions without promised funding.

The Sunday Times – apparently appreciating the need for something like SANE – allowed her to spend half her time setting up the charity while still working for the newspaper.

Four years later, she left to become its chief executive and run SANE full-time.

However, the plaudits she has received for the charity’s resounding success in changing perceptions around mental illness have gone hand-in-hand with death threats, frightening phone calls and intruders.

About 15 years ago, when she was having treatment for breast cancer, someone broke into her home while her teenage daughter Sophia was inside.

Sophia, now a music agent, heard a noise and went into her mother’s bedroom to find one of her wigs Ms Wallace used while undergoing chemotherapy laid out on the bed, surrounded by matches and dozens of photos of her.

“She has been different ever since,” Ms Wallace said. “She asked me to take my address out of Who’s Who columns and anywhere it was public.

“I wasn’t worried for myself. I find that often when I talk to people who are ill, they are really frightened themselves because no one is listening to them, no one else is giving them help.”

Much of Ms Wallace’s role at SANE is championing the charity’s work to provide emotional support, destigmatise mental illness, and provide help for sufferers by giving about 300 media interviews a year.

But she still works on the frontline, regularly takes calls and maintains regular contact with many of those she has helped throughout the years.

She said: “I’ve always said that the day I’m not on the frontline is the day I should cease to run SANE.”

But her selfless devotion has taken its toll on her own mental health.

She does not regret her inability to switch off from helping the most vulnerable at all hours of the day, in what her four children affectionately call her “method acting” approach to campaigning.

However, she admits that if she lived her life again, she might not devote herself so intensely to the cause.

“I have taken on too much darkness,” she said. “Maybe I should have been more responsible, and I think it has had an effect.

“It’s like you have tattoos on the inside: you can’t ever really erase them once you’ve taken them on.”

Her struggle to cope with this darkness has intensified in the years since her beloved partner Tom Margerison, the founder of magazine New Scientist, became ill with Parkinson’s disease.

Following his death five months ago, a car accident shortly after his funeral left her with a broken arm. Still shaken, she sought comfort in poetry to express her emotions in the absence of her most loyal confidante.

“I have had quite a lot of times when I felt very depressed,” she admits. “I miss not having someone who will share the nervousness when I do a broadcast, the stories I find, the effort of writing. Time doesn’t really heal that. Tom actually drove me a bit hard because he was as passionate about SANE as I was, and I miss that.

“I find it quite lonely now that Tom is gone, but there’s a lot of other people who find it hard too.”

For more information, visit sane.org.uk. SANEline is open everyday between 6pm and 11pm on 0845 767 8000.

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