During a long career in broadcasting and the media, I have seen and heard many shocking things. None have moved me more than the stories that Marjorie Wallace, who is now the chief executive of SANE, first began to tell me 16 years ago about the plight of the mentally ill and the devastation that illnesses such as schizophrenia and severe depression brought – not only for those living with the illness but also their families, often struggling to find the best way to support their loved ones.
The sad reality is, even though there have been developments in mental health over the past 16 years, the stories from individuals and families coping with mental illness still, so often, tell of their desperate, daily struggle to deal with mental illness – not least the lack of support in the community and a hospital bed when they need that level of support.
Marjorie continues to tell me about the sort of calls received at SANELINE and they get no less heart-rending. Like this one, which I will also tell on BBC Radio 4 today in an appeal for your support.
It is the story of Sally, who used to be an actress in the West End. Last Sunday was her 40th birthday but she didn't feel much like celebrating. Her husband Michael committed suicide two years ago on his 40th birthday and she vowed she would follow him on her 40th.
In a desperate state, Sally rang SANELINE the week before her birthday. She has severe depression but stopped taking her medication, unable to bear the side effects. Like so many with severe depression, she is afraid to go out and spends most of the day in bed. She has no contact with her family and feels abandoned by her psychiatrist who has moved away. The SANELINE volunteer who took Sally's call talked with her until she was calmer. By accessing the database developed by SANE – which contains over 17,000 records – they discussed how she might get a new psychiatrist and try new treatments and therapies. Eventually she stopped crying.
Through the Caller Care service, SANELINE called Sally back on her birthday, but there was no reply. They left a message that they were "thinking of her today". She later called to say she had felt too unwell to speak but that the message had helped her get through the day. I am told that SANELINE continues to keep in close contact with her.
It is real-life situations such as this one that demonstrates just how important it is for people to have someone to talk to who is trained to deal with their problems and who is available at their times of need.
I thoroughly support the work of SANE and its helpline service and know that they are the people I would want to have at the end of the line if I, or anyone I care about, ever needed them. I'd like to encourage people to give generously to The Independent on Sunday's Christmas Appeal for SANE. I'd like one day for Marjorie to tell me some different stories: where scientific breakthroughs have been made; where everyone is getting modern treatments and therapies; where there is enough community support and hospital beds for people with mental illness and where the carers of the mentally ill are given rights and are fully supported. Until then, with your support, SANELINE will continue to be a lifeline for 1,000 callers a week.
The BBC Radio 4 Appeal for SANE is broadcast at 7.55am and 9.26pm today and repeated at 3.27pm on Thursday 19 December
SANELINE was set up in 1992 by Marjorie Wallace, the journalist, author and broadcaster. Wallace, who had played a leading part in the campaign to win compensation for the victims of Thalidomide, went on to write a series of articles exposing the inadequacy of treatment for schizophrenia. Public concern generated by her articles, "The Forgotten Illness", was the catalyst for the establishment of SANE, of which she is the chief executive. Wallace has just been awarded the British Neuroscience Award for Public Service, for raising awareness of the benefits and achievements of brain research.
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