A courageous Spalding woman who has survived a string of traumas in her life is reaching out to help others.
Mum of four Vanessa Hills (47) is the driving force behind Community Mind Matters, a new group that will give people suffering from conditions like depression and anxiety the chance to meet, socialise, share solutions to problems and access help.
According to the charity Mind, one-quarter of the UK population suffers a mental health problem each and every year.
With millions affected – families as well as sufferers – why is it that mental health carries with it some kind of stigma or feelings of disgrace or shame?
One online dictionary actually defines the word stigma in the context of “the stigma of mental disorder”.
The tide is turning with celebrities openly speaking about battles with depression – people like Lady Gaga, Jim Carrey and Brad Pitt – and now Vanessa would like to help eliminate that stigma here and open the door to new opportunities for Spalding residents so they don’t have to suffer in silence.
There’s a lot of help out there. People don’t realise that it’s there. You don’t always have to go through the doctor’s to get help.Vanessa Hills
“There’s a lot of help out there,” she says. “People don’t realise that it’s there. You don’t always have to go through the doctor’s to get help.”
Vanessa has suffered from depression for many years along with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – although her PTSD was only officially diagnosed two months ago.
Her life is a never ending battle against those illnesses with good and bad days.
“I lost my husband when I was 21,” said Vanessa. “He got killed in the Army. I have had a lot of trauma, domestic violence, all sorts of things in my life.”
Her first husband Ken Dearlove was also 21 when he was killed in Northern Ireland in 1989 and the shock news was broken to Vanessa by two Army officers with a 3am knock on her door.
Vanessa’s baby son, Ben, was only four days away from his first birthday.
She wasn’t told how her husband died and still doesn’t know.
There was no bereavement counselling to help Vanessa cope with the pain or tell her that she needed time to mourn.
“I think that was the start of my problems,” said Vanessa. “I didn’t mourn him. I just got on with my life.”
In a later relationship Vanessa was left partially blind in one eye after suffering extreme domestic violence.
Vanessa also had to cope with losing a baby, who was stillborn, when she was 27.
Bereavement, violent assaults and the loss of a baby are known triggers for PTSD.
Because of publicity surrounding modern day wars, most people associate PTSD with combat troops, but it can affect anyone from any walk of life.
Mental health problems like depression aren’t obvious simply because no-one can “see” what’s wrong.
Vanessa’s battle against illness through her adult life hasn’t been made easier by people who have suggested she’s ok because she is smiling or has made an extra effort with her hair and make-up to look great.
In 2012 Vanessa had what she describes as “a meltdown”.
“I didn’t go out for six months,” she said. “I literally hid in the house. My kids did everything for me. I didn’t get dressed, I didn’t wash, I didn’t eat. I had to wait for my son to come home from work so I could get a cup of tea. Then I had to go to the council because I was getting myself in debt. How I survived I don’t know.”
Vanessa was referred to Spalding’s Johnson Community Hospital and given help from a community psychiatric nurse and a support worker for a year.
In September this year, she at last saw an NHS psychiatrist and there was an almost instant diagnosis of PTSD.
Vanessa said: “To have someone tell you what’s wrong with you is lovely. Then you know what you are dealing with. I knew I had more than depression.
“Now I am going to get therapy. I am going to get the help I need but it’s a long-winded process.”
Community Mind Matters has provided a new focus for Vanessa along with the hope of starting her own dog walking business, Walks with Vanessa.
She says Community Mind Matters will welcome everyone – including people feeling isolated or alone – and anyone who wants to volunteer.
Community Mind Matters was set up with the help of Jack McLean and fellow district councillors.
Jack is keen to welcome volunteers and said: “Not everyone is capable of doing a run on behalf of a charity or has the money to donate towards a cause, and I really can appreciate that.
“Small groups like this are another way for new people to give back in any way that suits them, and towards a cause that they understand.”
• Community Mind Matters holds its mental health awareness open coffee meeting on December 4 at 2.30pm at the Pennygate Foundation building at 204 Pennygate, Spalding. There will be guest speakers. For more information please call Jack on 07761 098517.