How this mental health group is saving lives and helping people across Wakefield and the Five Towns

This S.M.a.S.H groups meets at Airedale Library every month.
This S.M.a.S.H groups meets at Airedale Library every month.

"If it wasn't for this group, I would no longer be here," John Costello says, candidly. "That's the honest to God truth."

John is attending a monthly group therapy session at Airedale Library for people going through difficult times. There are eight other men and women sat round the table.

Daz Dooler leads the sessions here. He also runs groups in other parts of the district.

Daz Dooler leads the sessions here. He also runs groups in other parts of the district.

They are all part of S.M.a.S.H - Self Management and Self Help Society. It's a group run by people who've experienced mental health problems themselves, for the benefit of those coming to terms with their own issues.

At a price of just 50p to cover the tea and biscuits, they sit and chat through "everything from ingrowing toenails to the weather", in words of the group leader, for a couple of hours. The atmosphere is warm, friendly and informal.

For John, who lives in Normanton, it's been a literal life-saver. Physical health problems - in particular a spinal injury that's seriously damaged his mobility - coupled with other family issues contributed to him getting depression.

"I just got to the place where I didn't want to be on this planet anymore," he reflects.

Nigel Robinson and Mick McPhail met while accessing mental health support several years ago, and have been close mates ever since.

Nigel Robinson and Mick McPhail met while accessing mental health support several years ago, and have been close mates ever since.

"I felt like I was putting people out, because I needed people to help me with everyday stuff, and I didn't even want to see my own family. I preferred just to be on my own.

"A few years before I used to wonder how anyone could get into that sort of state. Then it happened to me and I understood. It was scary."

At one point, John says he was "so close" to taking his own life.

It took the persistence of a friend to persuade him to come to SM.a.S.H for the first time last year. Three times he declined before he reluctantly attended, and he hasn't looked back.

Daz qualified as a tutor after going on self-help courses himself.

Daz qualified as a tutor after going on self-help courses himself.

"This place is amazing," John says, beaming. "When I first came I didn't want to say anything at all because I was worried about what people would think. But now, I don't. These people are just great."

Another member of the group is Vicky Kaihau, from Outwood. She agrees that the ethos of peer support that sits at the heart of S.M.a.S.H is what makes it such a special place to be.

"Being here is brilliant," she smiles. "Everyone's got such a great sense of humour, and you feel so comfortable while you're here.

"It is empowering because you're helping yourself, but you also want to help others as well."

Even Paul, who bravely admits that a personal problem is "sinking" him at the moment, says that he really looks forward to the sessions, despite his difficulties.

S.M.a.S.H is just one arm of a body of mental health support available to people in the Wakefield district.

The group has links to Nova, which runs free courses and workshops for people living with a long-term health condition. The support is tailored to address individual needs.

Popular group leader Darren 'Daz' Dooler graduated from such a programme himself around five years ago and then qualified as a tutor. Along with two other members, he kept S.M.a.S.H going in its current form when NHS funding for it was pulled in 2017.

Monthly meetings are also held at The Link in Castleford, West Wakefield Methodist Church on Thornes Road, Pontefract Library and Hemsworth Library.

"I think we're all inspired by each other in here," Daz explains.

"We've all had our bad times. There's no doubt about that. The good thing is we know we can see each other once a month and talk.

"Some people do just come and don't want to say anything for the first time and that's fine. That's why we've got the tablets and laptops here, so that people can look up support online and they can get involved when they feel ready."

Going round the table, more stories are shared.

There's Nigel and Mick, who met each other outside a church they were attending to access mental health support for the first time. As each of them had second thoughts about going in, the two men convinced one another to step over the threshold. They've been close mates ever since.

There's Carol, whose sleeping difficulties are caused by the depression and anxiety she's lived with for around 19 years. "I do get really low," she confides. "Coming here keeps me steady."

And there's Janet, who's a self-help adviser with Live Well Wakefield, an umbrella health organisation which directs people to all kinds of support.

An MS diagnosis and the subsequent death of her husband devastated her and left her, as she puts it, "in a very bad place".

Her recovery shows how important it is to draw strength from personal milestones.

"I remember when I managed to get out of the bath for the first time in 18 months, that was a big moment for me," Janet says. "It gave me confidence."

"Eventually I got back into paid work with the NHS, and then into working full time again."

She adds: "It's about getting over those dips. When you're in them, it feels like you'll never get out. But you do."

Everyone at this group today has their own story to tell. They will each tell you that dealing with a mental health problem is hard, as anyone who has had one will testify.

But a common denominator between all of them is that they have found some kind of solace from coming to S.M.a.S.H and positives have emerged from their illnesses.

For Nigel and Mick, it's a friendship that will probably last for the rest of their days. For John, a support network and knowledge that he's not alone. For Daz, a life helping others. Another lady who used to attend went on to become a trained therapist, the group is told.

It might be very well versed now that speaking out about mental health is a very good thing, but it's still a message that can't be amplified enough.

These people's stories show that hope and happiness can emerge out of despair, and that help is at hand.

For details about S.M.a.S.H group meetings near you, call 07392 721475 or email smashsociety@outlook.com.

More details about the kind of physical and mental health support on offer across the Wakefield district can be found at http://www.livewellwakefield.nhs.uk/

If you feel at risk of danger to yourselves or others, please contact the emergency services on 999,111, or if you need to talk to someone who will try to help you call The Samaritans on 116 123.

Local Democracy Reporting Service