"Mental Health is unfortunately the Cinderella of the 'National Health Service' today, despite the growing rise over the past sixteen years in mental illnesses. It was recently recorded that one adult in six had a common mental disorder (CMD). These figures were broken down to one in five for women and one in eight for men. Since 2000, overall rates of CMD in England have steadily increased for women and have remained largely stable in men. Higher incidents of self-harming, suicide, post traumatic stress and bipolar disorder have also increased. Most mental disorders were more common in people living alone, those in poor physical health and the unemployed. In my mind, I strongly believe that there should be no distinction drawn between physical and mental health when it comes to the allocation of resources.
In the town of Portlaw, County Waterford where I was born, mental illness, although it may not have been called thus, was a condition that remained the prime responsibility of the immediate family and the community at large. It was as though the Irish understood that the shameful thing about mental illness was the stigma attached to it. They essentially saw mental disorder as an illness of the individual, not a weakness. If the Portlaw villagers had a philosophy, it would have been not to try to understand the inexplicable, not to blame anyone for it, but instead, accept it. They seemed to understand that though a person's behaviour may seem strange to us, to them it makes a great deal of sense and is the most natural thing to do. Sometimes when people look as though they are in the process of falling apart, they may actually be falling into place in the mental world they inhabit.
Many times in Ireland, I saw someone with a mental handicap behave bizarrely. The very first time I witnessed this, the people surrounding the person with the mental disorder would simply make the sign of the cross and otherwise ignore their behaviour. When I later inquired why the people had blessed themselves instead of restraining the mentally disordered person, they told me that such a person was blessed by God and would be guaranteed a place in Heaven. I recall during my early years in 'St Patrick's Catholic School' in Heckmondwike, having a classmate called Tony, who'd displayed a mental disorder since his birth. The Heckmondwike Catholics also believed the mentally disordered person to be blessed; someone to be never pitied. We cannot ever change the direction of the wind, but we can adjust our sails of thought, feelings and actions to accommodate the circumstances which surround us. I will never forget being told by Mrs Brennan, one of my favourite school teachers, that 'wonderful things can happen, even to those with a mental condition and slow of mind.'
In my adult years, after I'd joined the Probation Service, I became more closely and personally acquainted with some of the difficulties thrown up through mental illness. Within a ten year period, I had a friend, a niece, a brother and a mother who were all patients at the local psychiatric hospital of 'Storthes Hall' in Kirkburton, Huddersfield. 'Storthes Hall' first opened in 1904 and was originally founded as an asylum that catered for the insane as well as unmarried mothers of low educational levels. Over the years it became a Psychiatric Hospital, hidden somewhere out of the way in Kirkburton, Huddersfield. Between it opening and its closure in 1991, it came to be derogatorily referred to as 'The Loony Bin', and anyone who had a relative patient there would invariably go to extreme lengths to keep their presence and circumstances unknown from their friends and neighbours.
I have worked with many people who had been diagnosed with a mental illness or personality disorder over the years. For many of them, a traumatic episode which had produced severe stress, essentially triggered the psychiatric condition and left their life and health in a mess. I came to understand that many people who have mental disorders are often left feeling isolated and hopeless and that such people's mental health starts to improve once they know that other people are caring and sympathetic towards their struggle and display empathy to their plight.
I have also worked alongside colleagues who had mental disorders and who were able to keep their condition under control through the use of daily medication. Had they never told me that they had a mental disorder, I would never have known.
Society often forgets the burden that falls upon the close relatives of those with a severer form of mental illness that can frequently display itself in unpredictable violence. I once worked with a married couple in their sixties whose son, frequently and physically assaulted them, to the point that they even feared that one day he might kill them. Their son's violent outbursts would happen once or twice a year, but when they occurred, they always resulted in one of the parents getting hurt and the police being called out. This was invariably followed by their son being hospitalised in 'Storthes Hall'. It was natural that the parents felt to be at their wit's end and didn't know what to do; especially as cutting their son off from their lives completely seemed to be the only answer to them being able to sleep safely in their beds. My immediate advice to them was not to overreact and by doing so, make a bad situation worse. I indicated that we should never make permanent decisions for temporary emotional outbursts. In consequence, they sought additional help in controlling him instead of cutting him off forevermore; especially as they loved him; him being their only son.
After they had successfully spent six month's membership on my two-hour weekly course, of which learning to relax, reducing one's stress levels and changing one's behaviour were all covered, they asked me if I would consider taking their son as a member of a future course. I agreed, and their son attended every one of the twenty-six weekly sessions. While my final evaluation led me to believe that the young man did not benefit as much as other group members had, learning to relax as well as learning more acceptable ways to express one's anger did undoubtedly help him; much more than I initially realised. His parents, especially his mother, Nicky, was eternally grateful and reported a massive decrease in the impact of his explosive anger states and violent behaviour. Even after Nicky's husband died, her son, who now had his own accommodation, would visit her regularly. No Christmas ever passed without me receiving a Christmas card from Nicky, along with her expressed appreciation yet again.
Around seven years ago, Nicky's daughter contacted me and told me her mother had just died and as someone she had always spoken highly of over the years, the daughter asked if I would I like to attend her funeral service. After the funeral service and during the reception at a hotel in Denby Dale, her son came up to me and thanked me profusely for helping him and his parents many years earlier through their group membership. During our brief conversation, he told me that my course had helped him more than I could ever know and that whenever he looked in the mirror every morning, it wasn't a sad face he saw, but a person who had done his best with what he had. His parting words to me were, 'Don't worry about me, Mr Forde, I'm okay,' and as I walked away he added. 'Before she died, my mother said I was okay; so I must be!'" William Forde: November 9th, 2016.