Broken Branches: How a book is helping communities discuss mental health

Author M Jonathan Lee's latest book deals with grief and depression – and has inspired a new way of engaging with people suffering from mental health problems

Award-winning author M Jonathan Lee has just released his fourth novel Broken Branches. Focused on a family’s attempts to shake off a curse, it examines grief and loss in a unique way – weaving the themes into a story that’s spooky and supernatural.

Inspired to write about mental health issues by his family’s own experiences, Lee has also just launched a mental health forum in his hometown of Barnsley. Run by volunteers, it aims to create a space in which locals can seek advice and guidance on mental health issues, especially if they feel forgotten on a long NHS waiting list.

Lee believes this sort of community-led action could begin to change the way we approach mental healthcare in the UK.

The Big Issue: What inspired you to write your latest novel, Broken Branches?

M Jonathan Lee: Really the story behind it is one of grief and mental health issues. My grandfather died last year and we were going through his possessions. We found this strange old photograph of this very strict looking man and on the back of this photograph – and this is awful – it said George the Dog-Hanger. My uncle and I did some research and found out we were related to this chap from about 120 years ago who had a disobedient dog, and he went out and hanged this dog in a tree outside in his front garden. Nice guy as you can tell.

The idea stemmed from that. When we were looking through our family tree we realised that from the time that this happened right through to the present day there has always been a child that has died before their parents in the family. My father’s sister died of leukemia, my brother committed suicide and thus, having seen this little picture, the story of Broken Branches came out of whether a curse could really be passed down a family from generation to generation.

Is there something about fiction that makes it suitable for tackling issues like grief and mental health?

My brother committed suicide back in 2004 and my sister’s bi-polar so suicide and depression have been a fabric of my everyday life since I was about 16 and a lot of my books have mental health references. The one prior to this one was wholly to do with anxiety and mental health issues – from a first-person point of view as obviously all of this has had an effect on me as well. There’s something hugely cathartic about writing these things down and sharing them with the world, which is from where the forum has developed

At what point did you decide to try to make a tangible change within the community?

Last year we released a documentary film called Hidden  (below) and that got such good feedback so we felt like the next step was ‘right, what can we do to try and make people not feel like they’re lost and floundering?’ – either because they feel alone and they daren’t tell anybody about it or when they do make that step there’s nothing there for them in between.

I got together with a local church and started to talk about how we could get the community together and open up a discussion to see whether there was any hunger from the people to try and make this change. We had a fantastic outcome from that, which is why it’s now moving forward and local authors and MPs are putting their weight behind it as well.

How did you start the forum and what format does it follow now?

The first thing to do was put across my story so to speak to try to cut away some of these misconceptions from people who say ‘it’s alright for you, you’ve got a nice house or a nice car or whatever it may be, why would you be depressed?’ which is a fairly common attitude.

We’re in the process of launching a mental health website, which tells people a daily basis about events, help, services, assistance that are provided in the locality. At the moment there’s a mass of help and services that nobody knows about. Once an individual’s made the first step, they now have a central place of resources to look into other things. Ultimately, we want to be able to match these people directly with further help so they have that immediate contact. They would anonymously register on the site and then, based on the information that they’ve provided, we could then immediately link them with people who could give them instant help as far as within the next few days is concerned. Ultimately, we’re looking to run counselling for people who are in the step between GP and actual referral.

DID YOU KNOW…

Last year, 27,000 people worldwide earned an income selling street papers, making a total of £23.4 million.

In the long-term, do you see this sort of community-led support working alongside or instead of the provisions made by the NHS?

We have a number of people from the NHS who are part of the forum and are helping to drive it along. They can see where the gaps are but because of the colossal machine that the NHS is, trying to make any of those changes – especially short-term – is very difficult. Our feeling really is to plug those gaps in the meantime, I think that GPs are overwhelmed and, again, probably don’t have enough experience.

We want to be able to match people directly with further help so they have that immediate contact

. For example, there are various types of therapy that are just simply not offered by the NHS, which we feel could be beneficial. We’re trying to help a community that is in dire need at the moment.

Is there a particular need for this service in the Barnsley area?

There were people turning up to these forums who had not been outside for a couple of years. One chap said that he’d walked four miles to get there then stood outside the church staring at it for just over an hour before he plucked up the courage to go in.

There’s something particular about the area as far as attitudes are concerned – we up North are particularly poor at stating anything’s wrong or opening up about mental health problems themselves. From the various conversations I’ve had with people, I think this is a national need and it would be quite good – well, my ultimate dream is to create some sort of model which could then be replicated.

We are looking to assist people short-term but long-term make a huge change to the way that mental health is dealt

You’re funding the forum largely through the sales of your work, why was it important to you that this is where the profits are going?

Each time somebody purchases my third novel, A Tiny Feeling of Fear, because of the way we’ve got the publishing set up we’re donating about £5 a book, which is quite significant because we’re then raising funds to build a website. Ultimately, I would like the money coming in from book sales to effectively pay counsellors to be able to see people.

That book means a lot to me, it was a real lay all your cards on the table and open up everything. In some ways it seems sensible that if I was doing that with that book then it seems the right thing to do to give away the profits and hope that we can cut down this ridiculous statistic that suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45.

Broken Branches by M Jonathan Lee is out now

Interview: Sophie Monaghan-Coombs