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John Bird: Without support it’s a lonely path to mental well-being

"A healthier mentality would work wonders for people like the young man I met on the train..."

I was on a train coming back from a funeral and a young man came and sat opposite and engaged me in conversation. I had the strong feeling that he was nervous, on edge, looking down the length of the train as if to spot something. I felt like giving him some advice.

The advice was: “If you don’t have a ticket, when you see the ticket inspector go up and tell him your problem, politely.” Explain your predicament, I felt like saying.

The problem though was that he was ill. And as we spoke over the next hour he told me about his illness. He was autistic, or had been diagnosed recently as such. He was depressive and could not sleep. He showed me the pills that he had to take two times a day. He spoke softly and when I told him about me working on The Big Issue he smiled and even laughed.

I wasn’t just some passenger who didn’t know where he was coming from. He had been homeless and in institutions. We shook hands. I could tell by his damp hands that he had a high level of anxiety.

I did not have to tell him to be polite to the ticket man. He explained everything by the door and you could see that his determination to get through to the inspector worked.

We shook hands. I could tell by his damp hands that he had a high level of anxiety

The funeral I went to was different from most other funerals I had been to. In most funerals there is a fair amount of fudge. You have to strike out all the bad memories of the living person, and remember only their good parts. But it often takes a large bit of mental vivisection. And then you listen to the comments and the praise and seemingly appear to agree with the propaganda, though at times not recognising the figure so painted.

This funeral though was for Barbara, a person who so deserved all of the accolades and laurels of praise that descended upon her memory. She was a full, honest, round, generous, graceful and committed human being. And therefore it was sadder for us because this rock of goodness was gone.

In a book called Seven Years in Tibet I read that the dead were laid out on a hill over Lhasa, the capital, and hacked open. Then the birds would come and had a feast day, and then their guano would enrich the soils of the valley. What a brilliant idea. I was 17 when I read this and for years told whoever wanted to listen that that was how I was going to be treated.

What do you do about meeting someone who has mental problems? I talked, which kind of helped him. But he needed support, and when I asked his only support seemed to be the medication. But what he suffered from, and his autism, cannot be sorted by medication alone.

This bloke needed some help. Yet we live at a time when the Cinderella part of the NHS is mental health. Unfortunately mental well-being, or the lack of it, is where much illness comes from. A healthier mentality would work wonders for people like the young man on the train.

He got off looking happy. I gave him The Big Issue address in case he wanted to talk to someone. To restore him to mental well-being, though, seemed a bit of an impossibility.

Without a full and thorough support service, with mental health workers in place, people like the young man will wander lost and broken.

He did not ask but I gave him a tenner. I wanted him to know that someone cared. He did not want to take it but I made him take it. I hope he bought some good eats with it. I doubt it. Chocolate or some stimulants most likely; just to find a moment’s relief in the turmoil of this life.

It was not a typical Thursday but it loads you down with lots of things to think. If only there were no cracks in our attitude towards the harmed and hurt. If only there was a true safety net that wasn’t made of concrete. If only Barbara had got another year or 10.