A colourful Aladdin’s cave of a bus packed full of quality vintage apparel might be the last place you’d expect to see an enthusiastic bunch of clued-up folk attempting to raise awareness of the stigmas attached to depression.
But that’s exactly what you’ll find onboard one of the UK’s inspired social enterprises that’s helping to improve the nation’s mental wellbeing.
Taking inspiration from their colourful and cosmopolitan background working in fashion and music, Eddie and Gail O’Callaghan opened a not-for-profit vintage clothing shop called Off The Scale in Birmingham in 2015, staffed by young local volunteers who have had experience of mental health issues. The overall aim was to help create a more relaxed environment for their youthful clientele to start a discussion about any struggles they may be having – with a particular emphasis on students.
The Big Issue is a multi award-winning magazine, edited by the British Society of Magazine Editors (BSME) current Editor of the Year.
Eddie, now 56, has had mental health problems of his own – he has bipolar disorder, which wasn’t diagnosed and treated properly until he was 35.
“We decided to start the business after coming back from Croatia, where I had been helping promote music festivals,” recalls Eddie. “We had been all over the place before that, and Gail had a background in vintage clothing – we’d had shops in San Francisco and Liverpool.
“We really felt the idea would, given time, have an impact.”
The team handpicks and purchases clothing from charity retailers’ unused stock and remarkets it for customers. However, financial struggles meant it was difficult for Eddie and Gail to carry on with the physical store, and it’s here that Big Issue Invest (BII) enters the story. As well as maintaining an online commercial presence, the O’Callaghans floated the idea of taking the shop around on a converted Eighties vintage bus, visiting key areas such as university campuses, events and festivals. BII backed the plan with a loan, business mentoring and support through the Corporate Social Venturing programme.
“Big Issue Invest have been amazing,” Gail acknowledges. “They absolutely get what we are about, and they’ve given us so much support, both financially and with great advice. For instance, they told us to make the business leaner, and they were absolutely right to do that. We were able to focus on the bus and use that as a unique selling point.
“A lot of people recognise the Big Issue name,” she adds. “It always helps to have that on the side of the bus.”
Last year, 27,000 people worldwide earned an income selling street papers, making a total of £23.4 million.
“If we’re concentrating on prevention and trying to get people back into society mental health is one of our biggest societal challenges, from young to old,” reckons John Montague, managing director of Big Issue Invest. “It’s the elephant in the room. Let’s get it out in the open, prevent it from getting worse.
“From the BII point of view, mental health is as important as physical health. It’s much less of a taboo subject, but how do you create an environment where you can talk about it?
“Eddie and Gail have got a passion. The concept is the business they run, which is a bit cool and engages youth. It’s a mechanism for saying ‘let’s talk about this’.”
Off The Scale’s unconventional strategy has had a noticeable impact.
What we’re doing is basically encouraging people to volunteer to start a conversation about their own health
“The bus is like a magnet for the young kids,” enthuses Eddie. “These are kids who are under pressure, with nobody to explain or help, tell them where they can go, what they can do.
“What we’re doing is basically encouraging people to volunteer to start a conversation about their own health, referring them to Student Mind (the UK’s student mental health charity) and Time To Change (a national depression awareness charity). We’re a conduit to those groups, using the bus as a focus.”
“The bus provides a more welcoming environment for them to come in and start talking, rather than sitting at a desk somewhere, where it’s more difficult for them to open up,” says Gail. “On the bus it’s more informal. We play music, we have clothes they are interested in buying.
“A lot of the products there are related to mental health charities. There’s cushions made by a mental health charity in Shropshire, and mugs from one in London.”
As well as helping other people, Eddie says the project has been beneficial for him too, with regards to his own battles with his mental health.
“It has definitely helped,” he confirms. “As well as that, I can use what I’ve been through to do my best for other people, to turn it into a positive experience.”
So what about the future for Off The Scale then?
“We are speaking to Student Minds about working with them a bit more,” Eddie reveals. “And, together with Time To Change and Big Issue Invest, we will be taking the bus to campuses, events and festivals all over the West Midlands and hopefully beyond. The commercial side is OK, it’s about the social purpose now, to encouraging as many conversations as possible. It’s a work in progress.”
Off The Scale’s second birthday party will take place at Number 90 Hackney Wick in London on March 3, where guests will include Norman Jay MBE.
Words: Alan Woodhouse @HibernianG42