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.
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