Big White Wall chief executive Jen Hyatt with Health Minister Simon Burns
Published: 17 May, 2012
by TOM FOOT
VETERANS, armed servicemen and their families struggling with acute mental illness are finding “a sense of belonging” in a website where they can share experiences about the emotional fallout of going to war.
Many are feeling intense isolation – cut off from their partners and children for months if not years – and detachment, bereavement and confusion. Their loved ones feel cut off from them as they cannot understand or empathise with what they are going through.
The Big White Wall, which is part run by experts at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust, has been awarded £400,000 from the Department of Health.
It is a place for people to vent their feelings and listen to others’ distress, anonymously, in a forum monitored by psychiatrists offering expert advice.
Care Minister Simon Burns, speaking at an event in the Belsize Lane centre on Monday, said: “It has always appalled me that if you have an appendix problem you are rushed to hospital and people ring you up and ask you how you are.
“If you have a mental health problem, families do not want to talk about it – there isn’t a huge rush to talk about it.
“That is what is crucial. That is the challenge – to break down that stigma – and particularly now in the armed forces given what has been going on in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Despite this welcome pledge, Camden’s mental health service is being stripped down to its bare bones following massive cuts from central government.
Three mental health hospitals have shut and the number of community mental health teams has been halved.
The trust’s chief executive Dr Matthew Patrick said: “We have a problem with social isolation in Camden. We have a lot of people who don’t feel that they belong to a community.
“Inner-city areas are not easy places to live for individual people. It does make it difficult for people to get the help they need.
“It is about trying to provide access to a sense of belonging. It is not always easy to sustain. We have to improve access, but at the same time money is tight.”
Camden and Islington Foundation Trust, the commissioning authority, has been asked to save more than £20million this year – around a fifth of its total budget.
The cash-strapped service has already begun moving away from traditional face-to-face therapy to schemes such as The Big White Wall.
This is not altogether a bad thing, according to the project’s clinical lead Brian Rock.
The consultant psychologist at the Tavistock said: “I’ve been involved with Big White Wall for almost a year.
“I have 25 years’ experience as a psychologist. My bread and butter has always been face to face. I sit down, shake their hand. I might have some information from their doctor.
“What is happening is almost a paradigm shift, both as consumers of services and also providers of service.
“I have been really impressed at the extent to which the online environment makes a safe space for people to talk.
“It’s made me rethink the idea that face-to-face is best. There is an idea that face-to-face is a gold stamp, but I think it really offers something different. Some people will feel much better about the anonymity, they will express themselves more freely.
“People who come on to the wall, they are in need of support, they are desperate and distressed.
“There is a platform for people to come on and say what they think – with a community of people who want to hear what they say.
“Not necessarily to say, ‘I know what you’ve been through’. What is moving is the way people come on and say, ‘I do not know what you’ve been through but I want to listen, I want to help’.”
A member of the armed forces, who had formerly based in Afghanistan and Iraq, had recently told the New Journal that mixed messages coming out of the government about the role of the country in the Middle East, was the cause of much distress and mental health problems.
He said: “Think what you like about what is happening in Afghanistan – in the US, the Government says they are at ‘war’. In this country, it is not so clear what we are doing there. That has a big effect.”
Questions on those issues should be referred to the Ministry of Defence, a spokeswoman for the Care Minister said at the Big White Wall launch event on Monday.