‘We’ve lost the idea of sanctuary’: SANE founder on mental health cuts

Marjorie Wallace, founder & CEO of SANE, at home in Highgate in a Stella McCartney jacket. Photo: Ni

Marjorie Wallace, founder & CEO of SANE, at home in Highgate in a Stella McCartney jacket. Photo: Nigel Sutton - Credit: Nigel Sutton

Mental health campaigner Marjorie Wallace may have just won a Woman of the Year award, but she believes care is not much better than 30 years ago

The Highgate resident founded mental health charity Sane in 1986 after writing The Forgotten Illness, a series of articles exposing the lack of treatment and services for the mentally ill and their carers.

Ms Wallace believes there has been a “tectonic shift” in the way mental illness, described a few decades ago as ‘mental handicap’, is talked about.

There is no longer the same stigma, and “less of the legacy of shaming and blaming of families, the feeling that particularly mothers were to blame”.

But Ms Wallace believes cuts and closures have set mental health care back by decades.

She says the suicide rate is rising again, having fallen in the last two decades.

“I’m particularly sad because I don’t think it’s moved that much further than when I wrote the articles 30 years ago.

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“If you or I break down tonight, the chances of being able to go to a psychiatric hospital are low.

“You wait at home and it would maybe be quite a long time before you received any kind of help which we believe at Sane comes too late.”

Ms Wallace believes cost-cutting decisions to care for people at home are short-sighted.

“Trusts discharge people very quickly.

“What we hear from people is that they need more than being told how to handle their condition.

“We’ve lost the idea of sanctuary, which is a safe place to be when the mental and emotional stresses become overwhelming.

“Sanctuary as we know from recent cases is too often a police cell. Or people are even directed to hotels, rather than being taken in to a hospital.

“And people tell us they don’t have a relationship of trust with an individual doctor or care worker because they’re shifting around so much with all the reconfiguration of the services and many are being lost because of the cuts.”

Ms Wallace was given the Prudential Woman of the Year award for “Outstanding Campaigner” at a glamorous ceremony attended by Prime Minister Theresa May on Monday.

At home in Highgate Village, she is surrounded by modern paintings, books and photographs of her four children and three grandchildren.

She has lived there for 32 years and very much misses her late partner Dr Tom Margerison, founder of New Scientist.

But she has many friends, including “one in particular”, with whom she enjoys many dinners.

One of her paintings, just abover her sofa, is by artist Paul Lake, given to her by his widow after he took his own life.

Ms Wallace has kept in touch with many of the bereaved families that she helped in her glittering and sad career.

As an investigative journalist on the Sunday Times Insight team, she told the stories behind the thalidomide scandal, a medicine used to combat morning sickness which led to children being born without limbs.

Later, as a mental health campaigner, she continues to listen to people on the brink.

“It’s not only my own darkness I’m carrying, but quite a lot of other people’s darkness.

“I’ve known many families with suicides.

“I’ve been to many funerals.

“But maybe that is what makes me continue - I come across yet another story.”

Sane pioneered the UK’s first national out-of-hours mental health helpline, offering information and emotional support 365 days a year.

Ms Wallace described a conversation between a young man on a rooftop and one of her employees.

“They could hear the wind and the traffic underneath.

“The ambulance takes 50 minutes to come and he’s standing on the edge of the roof.

“We sent up a security guard from the building, and we manage to save his life.

“Well I dread to think, if Sane did not have enough volunteers, if that line had been blocked, if we hadn’t been open – he wouldn’t have had a second chance to live.”

Interviewed a few days ago, Ms Wallace was preparing for yet another charity gala.

She was deciding whether to wear her Stella McCartney jacket with a design of matches.

“I am setting the world on fire” – but arsonists are not to take this literally, she adds.

Ms Wallace hopes to raise money for an interactive text service, so people can send and receive texts from the charity automatically out of hours.

For information about Sane, visit sane.org.uk. SANEline is open everyday between 6pm and 11pm on 0300 304 7000.