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LONGER READ: ‘Our approach has set us apart’, says Mikeysline founder Ron Williamson as he prepares to hand over reins of Highland charity; Inverness suicide prevention charity has won wide support, including from Hollywood star Karen Gillan

By Staff Reporter

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Ron Williamson, of Mikeysline,is calling for a new approach to tackle suicide rates.
Ron Williamson, of Mikeysline,is calling for a new approach to tackle suicide rates.

RON Williamson will never forget receiving an early morning phone call that his nephew had been found dead.

Michael “Mikey” Williamson was just 23 when he died at his Inverness home two days after his friend, Martin Shaw, had also been found dead.

“There was that sense of shock and bewilderment,” he recalled.

The tragedy – four years ago tomorrow – prompted Mr Williamson to become a founder member of Mikeysline, a pioneering suicide prevention charity which provides a text-for-help hotline service for people experiencing thoughts of depression, anxiety, worry or stress.

Having announced he is now handing over the reins as he turns 70 this month, Mr Williamson reflected on the beginnings of the charity and how it has grown, gaining support from people across the Highlands as well as endorsement from Inverness-born Hollywood star Karen Gillan.

“I think bereavement by suicide is different than almost any other death,” Mr Williamson said.

“You go through various stages of self-blame to hatred of the individual – how could he do this – and total bewilderment before getting to actual grieving.”

Talking to other young people at his nephew’s funeral led to the launch of Mikeysline in December 2015.

“What was very evident was that they felt there was no-one to talk to,” he said.

“They thought that no-one would understand what they were going through.”

He was particularly concerned by a culture among young men in Scotland for not discussing things or expressing their feelings.

The fledging Mikeysline received a few tentative texts but as word started to spread, particularly via social media, numbers grew.

Today there are about 30 volunteers who respond to between 50 and 60 texts a week. The charity also set up The Hive Project in Academy Street, Inverness, the region’s first out-of-hours mental health crisis centre, which receives between 15 and 20 visitors each week.

This year, both services have experienced a 30 per cent increase from last year which Mr Williamson attributes to increasing awareness.

By his own admission, Mr Williamson has a “bull-in-a-china-shop, speaking-my-mind” approach which has not always been welcome among other voluntary organisations and professionals.

He said there had been suspicion and even hostility, but he felt ultimately they were there to save lives.

“Our approach of having volunteers with experience of mental health problems, who have survived and gone on to successful working lives and loving families, listening to and guiding service users who are currently going through the same crises is what has set Mikeysline apart these last few years,” he said.

“It’s an approach and model that is being taken up all over the country and has spawned a myriad of smaller groups, all eager to help their own communities.”

He wryly noted that earlier this year Princes William and Harry helped launch a “hugely innovative” text service for people facing a mental health crisis.

“I am incredibly proud of our achievements,” said Mr Williamson, whose commitment has meant a regular 600-mile drive from Southampton.

“We had the first crisis textline in the country, the first crisis self-help app in Scotland, the first out-of-hours crisis drop-in centre in the Highlands.”

Against a background of staffing and funding pressures at New Craigs Hospital in Inverness, he said Mikeysline enabled people to offload, but also stressed they advised people to seek help from their GP if necessary.

He is calling on primary schools to provide resilience training to help improve pupils’ ability to bounce back from setbacks.

“It is about learning life skills and coping with everyday situations,” he said. “It is recognising that what appears to be a problem now has a solution and doesn’t need to be a barrier. Life is tough, but problems are not insurmountable.”

He also stressed it was important children with mental health problems should get help early.

Reflecting on the past four years, he singled out NHS Highland’s general manager for mental health services for his unwavering support and Inverness councillors for financial support and encouragement.

But most of all, he thanked the public for its support and raising funds – from children donating £1 to a woman trekking 3000 miles across America – and the staff and volunteers.

“The fantastic staff and volunteers at Mikeysline demonstrate that there is hope,” he said.

“There is light at the end of the tunnel.

“There is no shame in experiencing mental health problems. It’s okay to talk. We will listen.”

Inverness MP Drew Hendy said Mikeysline, along with the Hive Project, was an incredible grassroots initiative taking on one of the most challenging issues faced by communities.

He added: “Not only has Ron been the driving force around the service, he is also an incredible advocate for change around suicide prevention and mental health services. I know he is also supported by a fantastic team of volunteers, who should all be very proud of the real difference they have made, and continue to make, to so many lives.”

There was also praise from Michael Perera, of NHS Highland.

“As evidence shows, many people who are experiencing suicidal thoughts do not approach traditional services, and by introducing Mikeysline as an alternative avenue for support, he has been responsible for helping hundreds of people in the Highlands,” he said.

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