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Real Voices: “We must increase mental health support in rural communities”

Emily Stokes is the CEO of Mikeysline, a mental health charity based in the Highlands of Scotland. In this week’s Real Voices, she discusses the work that Mikeysline does to destigmatise reaching out for help in rural communities, and the importance of open conversations when discussing mental health.

I’ve worked in mental health services for most of my career. I started off in the NHS in London as a graduate, and worked there for 14 years. I moved back up to the Highlands, and after working in a different mental health charity for some years, I joined Mikeysline. I am hugely passionate about mental health, and I am dedicated to making a difference to people’s lives by using my experience and skills.

Mikeysline was originally set up as a suicide-prevention charity in 2015, following the tragic deaths of good friends Martin Shaw and Michael Williamson within 48 hours of each other. Michael’s uncle Ron Williamson set up the helpline initially, and named it after his nephew. We have since grown as a charity to also support locals’ mental health in general, and to spread awareness of the importance of reaching out for help. We have text-based support, of which there are five different options that people can use to get in contact, from WhatsApp to Twitter. It is crucially important for people to have many options for communication, to make our services as accessible as possible. We give people a lot of different ways to get in touch so that they can choose the method of communication which they feel comfortable using, meaning they’re more likely to reach out.

We also do a lot of 1-to-1 support, in our Hives. We started our first Hive in Inverness in 2017. These are safe spaces where anyone can drop in for some confidential in-person support. They aren’t just for people in crisis, they are for anyone who is at all struggling with their mental health or having emotional issues. Our main Hive is still the one in Inverness, and it’s open 7 evenings a week. We also have outreach Hives in Nairn, Tain and Alness and we hope to develop more in the future.

As for our other face-to-face work, we go into schools so we can get positive messages into kids as early as possible, so that they have the tools to know how to ask for support which will hopefully help them later in life. We also work with employers to raise awareness of how they can support their employees’ mental health. In both these spaces, we run workshops to de-stigmatise discussion of mental well-being.

Apart from direct support, we put a lot of effort into raising awareness and breaking down stigma around asking for help, which is a prevalent issue in the kinds of rural communities we serve. We do anti-stigma work in alignment with other local organisations, such as local football teams and the Camanachd association, which really help in getting our message out to local communities. We also have a podcast where people share their stories, which helps because people can see that they aren’t on their own.

Talking about mental health should be as natural and everyday as discussing physical well-being. Our tagline is “It’s ok not to be ok.” Sometimes people can self-stigmatise and see their issues as their own fault, and they can become embarrassed at the thought of anyone finding out that they are struggling. It’s very hard to reach out for support when you’re feeling so low. It’s so important to get the message out that these issues can spring up for anyone at anytime, and all of us at some point will struggle with mental health and need support, just like all of us will have issues with physical health.

There’s a number of reasons why the Highlands has a high suicide rate compared with the rest of Scotland. There is a lack of opportunities as these are very rural communities, and also a prevalent culture of heavy drinking. As these communities are small and isolated, everyone tends to know each other’s business, which can make reaching out for help with one’s mental wellbeing all the more daunting. The culture for a long time in these small communities has been that you keep your business to yourself, and don’t burden anyone else with your troubles. Deprivation is also a key factor. There are lots of areas in the Highlands which are very poor, and families are in poverty, which obviously puts a lot of pressure on people and can cause mental health issues.

Young people have their own set of problems which can exacerbate mental health issues. At a young age, small problems can seem huge, and this is often made worse by social media. Often, young people (or people of any age) struggle to see a way forward, which is when they start to have thoughts of suicide. That’s why it’s so important to reiterate that there is always hope, and that things can always change. With support, they can change even quicker.

At the moment, we’re very much aware of the cost of living crisis, and the impact that that is having on people’s mental health. We would like to do more group support work, and provide food at these sessions. We want to look at the wider needs of people, as well as their need for mental support. We want to continue our work with employers and businesses, so that there’s an awareness in work settings about how to support employees’ mental health. Finally, we’d like to expand our reach further across the Highlands, and be present in more communities in whatever way they need.

Mikeysline offers a text line support service at +44(0)7786 207755 and via WhatsApp at +44(0)1463 729000 and also via its website, Facebook Messenger, and Twitter.⁠ For more information visit⁠

If you are struggling, there are always people you can talk to any time. In the UK, you can call Samaritans on 116 123 – calls are free any time, from any phone. ⁠Or you can text SHOUT to 85258.⁠

If you live in the USA, you can call or text the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988, and you can also contact the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741).