My 'hell and back' mental heath crisis during Covid - and how I was saved

Peter Smith, left, with two of the Garden Street neighbours who helped him through the crisis

Peter Smith, left, with two of his neighbours who helped him through the crisis, Nadia Hazlehurst from Davies Fish Shop and Digby Eddison owner of Harald’s Chocolates. The tops they are wearing celebrate Clement Attlee, whose government founded the NHS, which helped Mr Smith through his mental health crisis. - Credit: Will Robinson

Cromer resident PETER SMITH, 88, is one of many people who has found maintaining mental health during the pandemic difficult. Here, he writes about his journey.

When I came to live in Cromer in October 2019 after a 60-year career in North America, the last thing I expected was that I would lose my mind.  

This is my part of the world – my parents are buried 15 miles away, near the medieval church where my mother was baptised in 1900, and married in 1920. I did not come here to go insane.

But in December 2020 almost insane was what I was.

Ancient neuroses and phobias that had always been kept under control were joined by the Covid form of isolation to produce a near-collapse.

In the afternoon of December 14 I had to have a urological procedure, and when it was over I had the nous to ask the specialist in charge to get in touch with some mental health professional who could help me survive.

At 6pm I had a brief phone call, and the following morning there was a conversation lasting more than half an hour. From that time until the present I have been the grateful recipient of NHS mental health services care.

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I am writing this for my local newspaper for several mixed-together reasons because life has been complicated, but beyond all others are a desire to say thank you and an urge to try to help people I shall never meet.

I was not exaggerating when I referred to being almost insane but the thing for me to stress is that that term would have been unthinkable if I had asked for help four or five months earlier.

I should have asked for help a lot sooner with the depression I was suffering.

Believe me, one’s state of mind does not improve just because one wishes it would. The best advice I ever received came during a bout of deep depression some 20 years ago. It was 'do one thing'.

After the long phone conversation on December 15, a programme of therapy has been in place that has led to my being in better shape mentally than I have been for a very long time.  

It consists of people paying attention that amounts to a version of tender loving care. All these people are members of the National Health Service. Thank god for Beveridge, Attlee and Bevan.

Once I had been put in touch with the NHS mental health staff I could not possibly have been helped more effectively.

Numerous and regular house visits (I have been helped by more than 20 different people); consultations with two doctors taking care of the psych-tropic medicines I need; instant phone access when an emergency occurs.  

My son in the United States reminds me daily that if I was still there I would be in desperate shape as I’m not a millionaire.   

Your GP should always be your first call when you feel seriously stressed, but here is what is called the NHS 24-hour Mental Health Crisis Line number - 0808 196 3494. The people there are ready to help everyone who are at their wit’s end. 

I am writing this piece for two main reasons. One is warmly to encourage any reader who is feeling overwhelmed by isolation and depression to do that one thing and ask for help. 

The other is to thank everyone publicly for the mind-saving help I have received from the professionals and the life-enhancing care I have received from my neighbours.  

My house is the only one on my block that isn’t a shop, and the people at the chocolatier next door and the wet fish shop across the road have treated me like family throughout my ordeal – they’re in the photo here.

My first role as an actor, in 1942, was as Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol; my only line, with one word changed, is now my heartfelt prayer, “God bless them, every one.”

The wonderful work of the Samaritans to help those who are contemplating suicide, and their telephone number, are well known, but it’s important for me to stress that I was not that far gone.

If you need help or support, contact the Samaritans on 116 123 or the Norfolk and Suffolk Foundation Trust’s First Response helpline on 0808 196 3494. Both are open 24/7.

Alternatively download the Stay Alive app, which is backed by Suffolk User Forum, if you are having thoughts of suicide or if you are concerned about someone else.

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