Here to talk: The volunteer counsellors offering a 'glimmer of hope' and saving lives
"I'm not going to lie, it's been a real battle to stay open; we've been 24 hours from closing on a couple of occasions," says Stuart Brown, the founder and Manager of Counselling in the Community. "We live hand-to-mouth and, while there have been some generous people who have donated, it's a worry. I've sold my car - my pride and joy - but what's a piece of metal at the end of the day?
"The satisfaction of helping even one person is priceless."
In recognition of the importance of mental health provision, Counselling in the Community's mantra is to make counselling accessible to all. A donations-based service, people interested in accessing counselling can self-refer and take part in one-on-one help rather than group services, with 27 volunteers - 25 of whom are counsellors or student counsellors - on hand to speak to people.
Designed to help people who can't afford private help and who need someone to speak to now rather than after months spent on waiting lists, Stuart started Counselling in the Community three years ago. Having worked in retail all his life, Stuart's arthritis lead him to explore other options and he did a degree in Counselling at UCLan and found his calling.
"I always wanted to work with people," says Stuart, 50. "Volunteering at the mental health helpline taught me the importance of listening and, from day one of setting up the service, I knew I'd found what I wanted to do in life and while it was slow to begin with, we've grown."
Now seeing about 80 people per week and dealing with all aspects of mental health issues except for addiction, Stuart says that, while they took the decision to close their HQ on Derby Road in Blackpool early, they have not gone away thanks in large to local company LJT Systems, who donated a phone system to allow the service to run a Listening Line and conduct phone and Zoom counselling session remotely.
"When they started talking about social distancing, for the safety of our clients, I thought it was the right thing to close the doors," explains Stuart, who has lived in the area for 20 years. "I didn't want the volunteers, who are absolutely amazing - I couldn't wish for a more caring group of people - having to deliberate on whether to come in or not.
"But solving one problem created another and I didn't want to abandon our clients," he adds. "Part of our mantra is if you can't come to us, we can come to you so we innovated. With face-to-face counselling, there's a therapeutic relationship and it's often what's not said that's important. However, currently this is the best way to offer the best service possible."
Operated by volunteers and funded by donations, Counselling in the Community asks that people donate £5 per session to keep the service going but, due to the fact that Blackpool is one of the most deprived areas in the UK and the service is located in one of the most deprived areas in Blackpool, there are fears that people increasingly needed the service but can't afford it.
"We're busy but it's a very different kind of busy," says Stuart, who explains that each session costs the service about £15 to run. "We're still going flat-out but we haven't seen the beginning of it yet. The impact on mental health this will have will be big. Mental health and isolation are not good friends and when the lockdown is lifted, we will be inundated.
"There will be a tsunami," he added, pointing to the fact that he saw a marked increase in demand after lockdown was extended for another three weeks. "I don't think we'll be going back to normality any time soon and I think the government needs to look at the grassroots community services because it's going to be services like me who plug the gaps. And we're already taking the over-spill from the NHS.
"All people have to do is pick up the phone and we're here to talk," says Stuart. "That glimmer of hope can save lives."
To donate, click the donate banner at the top of the Counselling in the Community website at https://www.shbi.org.uk/.