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Changing our community’s ‘Frame of Mind’

Thursday, 17 November 2022 Donna

‘Tackling Stigma’ project manager Donna describes how Ystradgynlais Mind teamed up with the local rugby community to help improve mental health and save lives.

To listen to an audio version of the blog, featuring Michael Sheen, click here.

Mae'r dudalen hon hefyd ar gael yn Gymraeg. This link will take you to a Welsh translation of this page.

There’s a Welsh proverb that states ‘tapping persistently breaks the stone’ – dyfal donc a dyr y garreg. And that is the exact approach taken by Ystradgynlais Mind when it came to breaking down mental health stigma.

For those reading who have never heard of Ystradgynlais, let alone able to pronounce it; Ystradgynlais is an ex-mining community nestled deeply within the Swansea Valley. It’s one of those places that keeps a welcome in the hillside, where the greatness of its community is easily measured by the compassionate actions of its members. However, despite its idyllic setting and kind-natured people, there has been a shadow hanging over these mountains.  A shadow darker and deeper than the coal mines that lie beneath.  The shadow of depression has loomed heavily over these parts. 

“Depression doesn’t discriminate.”

Powys has the highest suicide rate per capita in Wales; and although depression doesn’t discriminate between genders, the lives we have lost to it here have been predominantly male.  It’s with a heavy heart that I tell you that almost every person you meet in this valley, will have been touched by suicide in some way or form, even me!

We have been buried in grief, and we just knew something had to change!

It became evident to us that one of the main reasons we were losing so many of ‘our boys’ was that they were significantly less likely to reach out when they felt low.  In fact, 75% of those who took their own lives were not even known to mental health services at all. 

“We are here, and we are willing and ready to listen.”

They had suffered in silence, but why? As a team in Ystradgynlais Mind we would ponder this question repeatedly, why are they not speaking? We are here, and we are willing and ready to listen.  We were not the only ones asking these questions of course, committees of our local rugby clubs were frequently approaching us and asking, “what can we do to help”? And then the penny dropped, we need to do something totally different here to end this tragic loss of life. Men were far more likely to talk with their mate or someone they trust over a pint in the pub, rather than speak and reach out to us.

They also congregate on a regular basis to either play or spectate in the game of rugby. 

Rugby is a very prominent part of Welsh culture, and there are many clubs dotted throughout the valley.  Since the demise of the chapels in the area in fact, the rugby clubs became the central hubs where the community spirit continued, and rugby almost served as a pseudo religion. 

Therefore, in conjunction with an array of rugby clubs within the locality a decision was made, we were going to tackle this problem head on, and train individuals within the rugby clubs to be mental health first aiders. 

We harnessed the power of friendship, trust, and ‘brotherhood’ and both equipped and empowered men to support each other, and we in turn, would support them.  To drum up a little bit of enthusiasm for this initiative we took it even further, and with the help of our very own Michael Sheen and some local musicians, a promotional video was made, to not only break down the stigma attached to speaking about mental health, but additionally to encourage staple members of the rugby community to train as mental health first aiders.


Our aim was for the mental health first aiders to carry the same parity of esteem of a physio within a club, for it to be as normal to talk about feelings of despair as it is to talk and seek help for a sprained ankle.  But crucially, the first point of contact, just like a physio, would be within their own club.

By breaking down those barriers, it means that men who find it difficult to speak to a mental health professional, can at least make themselves known to a friend or teammate.  And for those clubs who have embarked upon this training model, we would have already equipped that friend in knowing how to spot crucial signs, and how to signpost and facilitate a conversation that may very well save his life. 

And it is with great honour, gratitude, and testament to the resilience of our local community that I can proudly tell you; lives have been saved. Lives that without these actions, would have been lost.  A mother would have been without her son, a sister without her brother, a wife without her husband, and a child without their father. So, when we set up this model to help protect and nurture ‘our boys’, it wasn’t only about the guys, we were also protecting and nurturing the whole community.  We are one here, when one person hurts, we all feel it collectively, and this model has not only saved lives, but has also paved the way to tackling the stigma surrounding mental health and eased the pain of a whole community.  It has changed the ’Frame of Mind’ of those who would have otherwise suffered in silence.  There is a Welsh proverb ‘mi gerddaf gyda thi dros lwybrau maith’ – I’ll walk beside you over many paths.  And that’s the exact message we want to portray.

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