On Wednesday night Stoke based mental health charity Changes held its annual general meeting at the Hope Centre in Hanley. In attendance were around a hundred members and a small stuffed crocodile called Bob.
Quite what role Bob played in proceedings wasn't made clear, apart, perhaps from serving as a metaphor for how the risk of experiencing mental distress can lurk under the surface of the most placid seeming lives.
The meeting took place as concerns were being expressed locally about an acute shortage of psychiatric staff as the Royal Stoke University Hospital. Nationally think tank the King's Fund were quoted as describing cuts to NHS funding for mental health care and the increasing replacement of clinical treatments with cheaper and largely untested self help alternatives as a 'leap in the dark.'
For its part the government has since the election continued to make comforting noises about 'parity of esteem' for people with mental health problems with that of those with physical ones, meanwhile the same old situation pertains on the ground. Age old prejudices collide with paltry funding and the politics of austerity to create a bleak landscape for service users.
Increasingly charities like Changes are having to step in to plug the gap in services, providing mutual support, the group is, uniquely, run by people with first hand experience of mental distress; and surprisingly often a real opportunity for recovery and hope.
Chairman John Irons alludes to this in his review of the year saying Changes has continued to provide a 'supportive environment' and to help members play to their strengths rather than be limited by their problems, despite operating in a 'harsh' financial environment.
The work done by what is a, comparatively, small charity is truly impressive, over the past year it has delivered 34,104 contact hours, every week Changes volunteers have clocked up 540 hours of unpaid work with a value of £300,000 for the year as a whole.
Through an impressive array of projects the charity has delivered mutual support groups in prisons, offered training to members helping them to understand and develop tools to cope with their experience of mental distress and worked to help whole communities to improve their surroundings and quality of life.
About the only thing more remarkable than how much good Changes does in the local community is how little said community knows about it. Perhaps because they are used to having to fly under the radar to avoid prejudice people successfully living with mental illness who refuse to be defined by their condition are reticent about celebrating their achievements.
That is a great pity because it means some truly inspiring stories are never heard by the larger audience they deserve, stories like that of Matt. He is one of the 569 people Changes helped last year through its One Recovery drug and alcohol addiction project.
On Wednesday night he took to the stage to tell the story of how through the pressures of his job as a chef he had become first a heavy drinker and then a full blown alcoholic. Despite having tried to find sobriety before it was only when he discovered Changes that something 'clicked' and recovery became first a possibility and then a reality.
Now a year or so later he had found a new life, not one that was always easier than it had been before, but now it was one that contained genuine friendships, a sense of purpose and hope for the future. There was no contrition or victimhood here; no sense of an individual having been flattened into numbed stasis by a system that puts paperwork ahead of people, just quiet and hopefully lasting strength.
Mental illness has, in one form or another, always been part of the human condition, the trade off we make for having brains that reason rather than follow instinct alone. What is clear though is that the atomised, aggressively materialistic and competitive nature of today's world has made it more prevalent.
There are few people who will not have it touch either their life or that of someone close to them and yet it remains something not to be spoken about. On the rare occasions when the subject is raised it is through a narrative of victimhood and intractable problems.
Wednesday night told, through the experience of Matt and many of the other people present, told another and more positive story. One about hard times overcome and a long road travelled to arrive at a better place.
It is a story that should be told openly and with honesty to give hope and courage to others who might be about to take their first faltering step.