We never know how the smallest moment of our time can profoundly change someone else’s life. Never underestimate how a small gesture of compassion can make a big difference to someone who needs it. It could be the person you see on your daily commute, a neighbour, or even a colleague.
In support of Mental Health Awareness Week, which takes place until Sunday and is run by the Mental Health Foundation, we are featuring a moving story showing you how a simple act of kindness in your working day can make a big difference to someone.
Despite mental health problems affecting one in four people every year, stigma and discrimination still exist when it comes to talking about the subject. Many people are afraid to talk about their experiences for fear it will affect their job or friendships.
In February 2007 I was living on the streets and experiencing extreme mental health issues. I was anxious, depressed and a drug addict.
I took anything I could lay my hands on: heroine, crystal meth, valium, uppers and stupid amounts of alcohol.
I had been homeless for five years, sleeping in a carpark in Archway on an old mattress or inside abandoned cars. I was broken physically, emotionally and spiritually, sick with hepatitis C and dying. I was 33.
One evening my life changed.
I was in my usual spot, begging for beer money outside Sainsbury’s. It was dark; I was cold, angry, and desperate for anything to numb my mind.
A PCSO from the Met came to move me on. I broke down. His name was Michael and he took the time to listen.
He took me for a cup of tea and bought me something to eat and heard how I was trying to change, trying to get treatment and despite being on a methadone programme it wasn’t helping.
Michael said he could help me. Something about him made me trust him. Up to then the Police were the enemy to me and my encounters with them had always been negative. But Michael showed me a degree of humanity that I had never experienced from a police officer before. I felt he cared, he was interested and we connected on some level.
Michael asked me to wait in the same spot at a certain time the next day and he would bring someone who would help me to get on a methadone programme.
I turned up the next day and waited.
I waited wondering he if he was going to let me down.
Savva Pannas, an outreach worker for Pilion Trust in Islington took me for a meal and assessed me. He found me a homeless shelter where I had to remain for ten days so I was in ‘the system’.
Those ten days secured me a place in a detox unit and after three weeks I was funded by North Islington Drink and Alcohol to go into rehab in a house called ‘Somewhere House’ in Somerset.
I was there for six months and moved onto a dry house for 18 months. It was nearly two years before I was independent and free from addiction.
Nine years later I have a partner and three children, a degree in counselling and I worked for some time in rehabilitation. There is a beautiful symmetry to my story, as I now train police officers and staff in mental health awareness.
At the start of every new session I tell everyone about the day one person took the time to talk and unwittingly transformed my life. He did a small thing, he heard my story and validated my experience as a human being.
As a PCSO part of my job was to move the homeless on from their begging spots in Archway. There was so many of them, 86 in total. We issued £80 PND’s (Public notice disorders) for begging which people of course couldn’t pay and they would always be back to the same spot as soon as we had moved them on.
I felt strongly that we needed to do something more meaningful, to find out the root cause of the issues and to help them so they wouldn’t be back.
One day I saw a man in front of Sainsbury’s begging. I went to explain to him that he couldn’t beg there and he was at risk of being arrested.
He said: “I don’t have anywhere to go.”
I asked him where he slept and he said on the street. It hit me hard. I took him for some food and gave him my card. I explained the work I was trying to do and I asked him to wait in the same spot the next day and not to beg. I explained I would send someone who could help him. I contacted the Pilion Trust and arranged for someone to collect him.
Savvas Pannas, an outreach worker kept me updated on Max’s progress but after a while I didn’t hear anything.
My sergeant received a letter. It was from Max. At first I thought it was a complaint but when he read it to me I was so emotional.
It made me feel proud. In the job we do we don’t often get thanked. We often get abuse. His letter gave me a boost of energy to do more for people.
Max did something for himself. Only two people out of the 36 we put through to rehabilitation got through it. Max did. He really wanted to change.
After Max’s letter I was nominated for the Met Award for employee of the year. Being a PCSO gives me time to talk to people and to help them in whatever way I can.
Avon and Somerset Police want to encourage you to start conversations to end the misconceptions around mental health. This can be as simple as asking someone how they are feeling that day, or telling people about the Mental Health Foundation and Mind.
Mental health problems affect one in four people every year, yet people are afraid to talk about their experiences because they fear it will affect their jobs or relationships. That’s not right and you can help end the stigma.