By Revd Matt Finch
‘A minister, a mayor and a pub landlord…’ sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but actually it sums up the start of a wellbeing movement in the market town of St Ives, Cambridgeshire. It is called CALMtown, a project that seeks to raise awareness of mental health issues and become a community where everyone is comfortable talking about their mental health or listening to someone who needs to talk.
It began with like minds coming together. I was about to turn forty and my sons had challenged me to cycle from London to Paris. As a Methodist Minister I was increasingly meeting people struggling with their mental health, and so I decided ride for the suicide prevention charity CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably, thecalmzone.net).
As I was beginning my training, Tim – the aforementioned mayor – was talking honestly and publicly about his own mental health journey and his desire to support people when they struggled. Around the same time, Phil, the pub landlord, tragically lost one of his patrons, Carl, to suicide. St Ives is not the exception, and in the UK around 125 people a week will take their own life (thecalmzone.net/about-calm/what-is-calm).
As community leaders, Tim, Phil and I realised we could use our influence and connections to make a difference. So, one Monday morning on market day, we met over coffee to see what we might do together. We decided to dream big, and CALMtown was born.
We began meeting others in the town and on a cold November evening we invited them into the warmth of St Ives Methodist Church for a drink and the opportunity to hear about what we hoped to do. It is fascinating how easily we overlook the gift our churches can be to our communities, simply through offering a cuppa and a space to gather. On this occasion, the tea, coffee and biscuits were provided by the local funeral directors who wanted to support our initiative, motivated by their first-hand experience of the impact of suicide on families.
I had no idea who would turn up, if people would be scared off by a dog-collar, if people even cared about the mental health of St Ives. Perhaps it was still too much of a taboo subject, almost like the word ‘cancer’ use to be; the ‘C-word’ no one would speak about.
Looking back now, it felt like a moment when, if the walls could speak, they would have said ‘here is the answer to all those heartfelt prayers for the town over 200 years; this is why these bricks have stood so long, to hold this community when it needs care’.
A young man in a leather jacket stood up and shared his struggles; a headteacher spoke of her hopes for her pupils; a young mum spoke of her post-natal depression; worried people spoke of wanting to support struggling friends. Sharing together in this way was not about finding a solution but the beginning of acknowledging that we could all make a difference.
So, with the vison affirmed the work began. The plans were grand: big events, every person joining a wellbeing group, the entire project being setup in a year; in reality, it has been a long and at times frustrating journey. We have seen ‘mustard seed’ responses, micro-actions aimed at tackling a huge problem, an invitation to every member of the town to make their contribution and, together, making a big difference.
The CALMtown team meets regularly to guide the project. Once or twice a month a group of us – the landlord, the mayor, a mum, a headteacher, a personal trainer, a local businessman, a property developer, a student and a solicitor – gather in the Floods Tavern. We’re planning small things that encourage people to get help and reduce the stigma around mental health.
So, what does a CALMtown look like?
The most successful initiative so far has been Meet the Street, a simple way to reduce the isolation which is one of the key factors in poor mental health. A couple of weekends a year we encourage one person on every street to put the kettle on and invite their neighbours in. This low-cost idea has seen people connect; folks who have lived on the same road for years and not known one another’s names now stop for a conversation. Our last Meet the Street happened three weeks before lockdown and many have said that getting to know their neighbours at that event made a huge difference to that experience.
It has been important to signpost people to the help that is there already. Through social media and in the local printed press we have repeated the message that it is OK not to be OK and that there is plenty of help available. Local GP surgeries have told us patients tell them that CALMtown is the reason they’ve made an appointment.
Our poetry project has displayed snippets of inspirational poetry in shops, pubs and schools. We have a CALMcouch that pops up at key events, and in key spaces, in the town, raising awareness and demonstrating that in St Ives there will always be someone available to sit alongside you.
During the autumn of 2020 we focused on enabling people to feel comfortable talking about mental health, and local business and community groups have begun a program of mental health first aider training. Our hope is that eventually every business and community group in St Ives will have a mental health first aider, and we have asked every business to train one person and pay for training for one community group. Over time this will build into a network of mental health first aiders, able to spot the signs that someone is struggling and be there for them.
As a teenager, the passage that convinced me of God’s interest in my life was John 10:10: ‘I have come that they may have life in all its fullness’. The Church has a message of hope for those whose lives are hard, that God cares and longs for them to know fullness of life. CALMtown is just one small part of sharing that message.
Revd Matt Finch, Pioneering and Church Planting Officer
This article first appeared in Country Way 86: Mental Health & Wellbeing, February 2021. Go to arthurrankcentre.org.uk/country-way for more information about how to subscribe.