When Bill Graham set up the New Wortley Mens’ Walking Group three years ago, he had one thing in mind - to do something about the higher than average suicide rates in West Leeds.
According to the Leeds Suicide Audit 2016 - an official report commission by city health officials - white middle aged men who have suffered some sort of emotional trauma, be it losing their job or suffering a marital breakdown and who live in economically deprived areas, are more at risk of taking their own lives than other groups.
The statistics are alarming.
The report states: “The data from the 2011-13 audit demonstrates that overall there were 213 deaths attributed to suicide. This has increased from the 179 deaths identified in the previous audit. The rate of death from suicide was 9.5 deaths per 100,000 people in Leeds. The rate from the previous audit was 8.1 deaths per 100,000.”
While national statistics show the group most at risk of suicide is white British males, the report also identifies a clear link between suicide rates and those living in socially deprived areas.
It says: “It was found that 55 per cent of the audit population lived in the most deprived 40 per cent of the city. This shows a clear relationship between deprivation and suicide risk within the Leeds population. The areas with the highest number of suicides per postcode district make a band across LS13, LS12, LS11, LS10 and LS9.”
The New Wortley walking group, which meets weekly on a Friday from 11am-3pm, has been singled out by health officials as a leading example of how to tackle the factors which contribute to suicide. It has also benefited from the support of retired former Leeds West Labour MP John Battle, who regularly leads walks, often taking group members in his own car.
“There were a couple of reasons for setting the group up,” says Bill, a 49-year-old father-of-three, who is also the treasurer at the community-run Bramley Baths and the man responsible for putting its business case together after they took over the running of the facility from the council some years ago. “There was a very high suicide rate in that area, one of the highest in Leeds and one of the highest in the country. Most people who tend to commit suicide are middle aged men, who have broken up relationships problems with alcohol or drugs and crucially they lack any social support network. That’s what the walking group provides.”
Crucially, however, it manages to do this by avoiding the stigma which often prevents men from seeking help themselves, as Bill explains.
“It just seemed like a simple idea to get them out for a walk. The incentive for that was they get a free hot meal at the end of it. It was just trying to encourage people to come along.
“It’s the most amazing group and it comes from the people, they all have stories. We had a psychologist come out with us and he said it was very useful to enable men to open up and talk. Men relate to each other differently, they like to sit in pub with pal and have a chat and go home but they do not engage easily. The psychologist said if you are walking shoulder to shoulder and not face to face, then men open up more. The whole idea of walking is everyone is equal, you do find the most frightful and interesting stories and from our point of view we’re trying to encourage people to open up and address issues they might have.”
To get the group up and running, they managed to get some funding - to pay for the meal - from City Connect, a charity which promotes alternative transport across the city. The support of Mr Battle has also been a fillip for the group.
“John Battle heard about it and got involved straight away, right from the start. He has all these amazing stories and it sometimes makes for a strange juxtaposition, because on the one hand you can have a group member talking about sitting in a bush drinking a bottle of Mad Dog 20/20 and then you have John Battle telling a tale about how he talked to a world leader about a serious foreign issue ten years ago.”
To get it off the ground, Bill sourced funding from City Connect, an organisation in Leeds which looks at how people can navigate and walk about the city but is not necessarily focussed on improving mental health but that’s an area Bill would like to see change.
“I’ve been to numerous presentations from health organisations in Leeds and they often use our slides and highlight our walking group as a prime example of the kind of project which helps tackle the issue of suicide among middle aged men but we just don’t get any funding from them.
“Quite often, people’s problems get easily medicalised and the answer ends up being a pill, whereas our group can offer an alternative to that.
“We judge it on outcomes. I have seen people start with the walking group and then get more involved and start volunteering at the centre. It’s amazing how many people have got to a stage where they find they can be of use to society. The other thing is they lose weight. We had a chap who was a teaching assistant in a school but was unemployed for 10 years. He joined the group but has now been applying for jobs.”
Simon is a long term resident of New Wortley. He is 48 and lives on his own in one of the tower blocks.
He has been unemployed and claiming JSA since 2002. His last job was working as a kitchen porter. He does regular job searches and attends job training courses but without success. He has difficulty reading and writing and feels this is the main reason preventing him finding work.
Simon has been involved with activity groups at New Wortley Community Centre for the past 18 months and feels that getting involved has been very beneficial.
“It gets me out of the house doing useful stuff and keeps me fit. It feels good to be part of a team, meeting new people and learning skills. The centre gives me a reason to get up in the morning. It makes me feel happier about myself and keeps me from being depressed.”
Simon started work as a caretaker/cleaner in January 2016, at 16 hours a week and it now working 30 hours a week.
Bill adds: “My message is this: there’s a lot of money goes into health services. I chat to GPs and clinical commissioners all the time. I think community groups have the answers to a lot of problems and with a little bit of investment you can get community initiatives off the ground and they can have a really big impact. It’s about people, not pills. I think we need to look at how more of that can be done.”
New Wortley Community Centre men’s walking group conducts walks through Leeds and also at places like Mewmilledam, Otley Chevin, Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Brimham Rocks
The 2016 Leeds Suicide Audit said there were 213 suicides in 2011-13, up from 179 during the previous audit. The most at risk age is men aged 40 to 49
Website: www.newwortleycc.org; twitter: @newwortleycc
New Wortley Community Centre, Tong Road, LS12 1LZ
Telephone: 0113 279 3466