Highgate mental illness charity sees 'desperation' rise during Covid year

Marjorie Wallace, founder of SANE

Marjorie Wallace, founder of SANE - Credit: SANE

"When I first started Sane, the idea that a newspaper would devote a whole day, let alone most of an issue, to mental health was out of the question."

Former journalist Marjorie Wallace has been running the mental health charity SANE for 35 years and will be a panellist at Ham&High: Our Community's Mental Health, a free online event on May 21.  

Ham&High: Our Community's Mental Health

Ham&High: Our Community's Mental Health - Credit: Archant

She began her advocacy around mental illness on the back of writing about the "forgotten illness" of schizophrenia in the early 1980s.

"Back then, mental illness was considered so scary and so stigmatised," she said. "People never admitted to having mental illness in the family, so to have come to the point we have with this event is remarkable.

"It is quite important to say there's been a tremendous change in awareness of mental health. Now you can't switch on the radio or television without hearing a celebrity or a sportsperson talking about their anxiety or their breakdown. That's positive, but it has not been matched by the availability of frontline care." 

SANE runs a helpline for people suffering from mental illness and distress, but had to adapt during the pandemic. 

"What's happened in the last year has had a impact on people who are struggling with mental illness because many of the services people have been relying on have been disrupted," she said. "People call us because they are not receiving visits. A lot of the help has gone online.

"But when you have severe illness – when you can't connect with the outside world – having online help can increase your sense of isolation and disconnection."

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Rather than being able to run a live phone line, Sane's pandemic workaround sees callers leave messages and trained volunteers call them back. 

"We have found in some ways that has been more effective than just answering the phone," she added.

"The volunteer is able to form a relationship with them. We are one of only a few organisations who offer follow-up calls. So, then they know that we will be calling them, they can always call back, and that their story is known. That's very important for people with long-term serious mental illness.

"We have so little to offer in terms of medical help or even therapeutic help. What people can need most is that constant person they can trust. That's where the current services often fail." 

Marjorie said during Covid-19 SANE has seen an increase in people talking about "actual plans" to commit suicide, as opposed to talking about the idea of suicide.

She said that, especially in the early days of the pandemic, "about one in three" callers were in that situation. 

"The fact that people have got to that stage of desperation shows how difficult the year has been," she said. "There's also been a very alarming increase in self-harm."

Marjorie said the pandemic has put more strain on friends and family members of people struggling.

"In our calls we have had many more parents and families contacting us," she said. "For them it's been really desperate time. Families are always overlooked." 

She said this was because in normal years it was easier for families to check-in on loved-ones.

SANE has seen an increase in the number of getting in touch generally, as well as more people "with feelings of distress".

"Part of this is linked to more feelings of uncertainty about the future. It's a very worrying time," she said. 

"Recent ONS data has shown the levels of self-reported depression had actually doubled in the year of the pandemic, especially in young women."

She added that the "lack of crisis beds is a scandal", saying investment in psychological research is vital.

"It still remains the case that we put far too little money into research into the mind and the brain," she said. "We still don't know why, for example, one young person becomes depressed when another dealing with the same pressures is not. For me, that's the way forward." 

Marjorie Wallace CBE is the founder and chief executive of SANE. Leave a message on 07984 967 708 to get a call back or email support@sane.org.uk

SANE is supporting Ham&High: Our Community's Mental Health on May 21 and Marjorie will be taking part in a panel discussing the impact of Covid-19 on mental illness.

If you would like to support SANE, donate at www.sane.org.uk/how_you_can_help/donate