The vice chair of Stoke North Big Local talked about their mental health journey and experience of community activism to our journalist-at-large, Louise Tickle
The vice chair of Stoke North Big Local has chosen to remain anonymous
“Mental health issues have affected me all my life. I’ve been suicidal, I’ve been sectioned and also been in hospital voluntarily. I can go through rapid mood swings and can get very agitated. There have been periods of up to five years where it’s all been fine, then something can happen. It comes out of the blue. So I have to make sure I’m busy; like a shark I’ve got to keep moving. I used to volunteer for Bristol Mind after having a bad time on a mental health ward, and the work I do with the mental health group here in Stoke draws on the experiences I’ve had throughout my life.
I’m now signed off as unfit for work, so I like being able to use my skills to help support other people.
I’m passionate about being open about mental health difficulties, because that’s the way to reduce the stigma of it, but I also get anxious and paranoid, which is why I’m not using my name in this piece.
I’ve been involved in community activism since I was a teenager in Stockton-on-Tees in the mid 80s. I left school with very few qualifications after quite a chaotic childhood: my mother struggled with alcoholism and my father had schizophrenia. I trained in silver service waiting. It got me over my shyness, because I was profoundly shy as a child.
I ended up being head waiter at a hotel in my home town, but because I’d become a shop steward, I was getting quite a lot of grief from management. I’d found myself representing people and doing negotiations on their behalf but the catering industry isn’t keen on unions. There was quite a backlash. It was all good experience though, and I went to Bristol uni as a mature student aged 27 to study social policy. It felt like a natural progression.
In 2012 my sister died from cancer and my brother took his own life. Another brother lives in Cheshire, and I moved up from Bristol because I wanted to be closer to family. Coming to Stoke was complete chance: I was looking at Rightmove, put a price range in and Stoke was the cheapest house I could find.
Because I’ve got involved in community activism here, I’ve got a lot of friends and a lot of contacts. I first started coming to Big Local meetings four years ago and have been the vice chair for the last two and a half.
I see the role as being the support person to the chair, and an extra pair of eyes in meetings, making sure everyone who puts their hand up gets the chance to speak.
I’m involved in a community stuff well beyond Big Local too – I help out with Assist Advocacy, a mental health organisation, partly because of my personal interest.
Welfare benefits are something I’ve always campaigned around too, and it’s an area I’m pushing our Big Local to do more about: six people from the partnership want to volunteer as Community Champions with the Citizens Advice Bureau, which would mean they can offer benefits advice, or help people applying for Universal Credit, sitting with them as they fill in all the online forms. So many people are frightened by having to do this stuff on a computer, and the whole process has to be done online now. It’s difficult for them.
Our Big Local often works by partnering up with other organisations to meet a local need, so for community computer classes, we paid for the laptops, the charity Fegg Hayes Futures provides the room and an organisation called Disability Solutions sends the tutor. Big Local draws people and organisations together, and I see that as a real strength – we’re an umbrella.
Sometimes I go through a really bad dip in my moods and I’ll vanish off the scene. If I go to hospital, I just drop out of the community. But what’s good is that when I turn up again, nobody blinks an eye. People know, and there’s no fuss.
We are all the sum total of our experience, and I’ve experienced injustice so I don’t like injustice. That’s where my politics on the left comes from, but standing in a demonstration doesn’t achieve very much, so you’ve got to be more pragmatic. You’ve got to be active. You can’t just wait for the revolution to come because it might take a long time.”