February 5, 2009

On Sunday and Monday, the 25th and 26th of January, I took part in a publicity stunt for “time to change" and boarded a tram with a difference.One carriage of the tram had been converted into a padded cell, with pristine white cushioned walls and seating.

Unsuspecting commuters joined me and the rest of the “time to change" team in our confinement; many of them not realizing what they had stepped into, until they had sat down. Had the tram company gone off the rails? No, Supertram, were great in their support of our campaign, without whom we could never have been able to achieve our objectives.

So what kind of madness was this? That was exactly the kind of question we were trying to answer. The whole stunt had been organised to illustrate this entire point, a common view is that mental health sufferers are mad. We were there to drag this way of thinking out of the dark ages and tell it how it really is. Having mental health problems, does not make us mad and we don't need locking up in padded cells. Padded cells in fact, don't any longer exist; but still the deranged nutter in a padded cell, is a lot of people's image of someone with mental health problems.

As a mental health service user myself, I went up and down the tram, with fellow service users and “time to change" team members, explaining this point. We found the people of Sheffield very friendly and most of them freely discussed the issues with us. We explained that 1 in 4 people at some point in their lives suffer with mental health problems and that meant approximately 50 people on the tram fell into this category. They could see from talking to us and the figures just quoted, that people with mental health problems are ordinary people like everyone else, just going about their daily business.

We were all thrilled at the response and also of the confirmation of the 1 in 4 figure. For most people we talked to either knew people with mental health problems or were sufferers themselves. In many people, it seemed a great release to be able to talk about it. Let's hope that this is the beginning of the end to the great taboo. The act of being able to talk about it dispels the stigma and helps those most in need. Too often people suffering from mental health problems keep it all bottled up inside and many people seeing someone in this state are too nervous to approach them.

On that Sheffield tram, people started talking, free from the stigma that has hung over the subject throughout history. Being able to talk to someone and having people there ready to listen to you, is the best medicine there is. Let's keep up this dialogue that was started on the tram ride and help people who need it most; before it's too late.

I asked people what their impressions were of the tram carriage and received surprising responses from the commuters. Several people said it resembled a space rocket. One person thought it was like a luxury limousine. Quite a few people were reminded of an aircraft. My favourite response by far, was from some children, who thought the bright whiteness of the tram carriage resembled heaven.  In this padded cell, which in history had been a place of hell for so many people, a new light had been cast upon it. Let's hope this campaign brings a piece of heaven into people's lives and rids them of the hell that they have been living with through stigma and mental health issues.

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