Who carries the baton of hope in such dark and challenging times?

July 2, 2023

Last week I was honoured to address the Newcastle leg of the ‘Baton of Hope’ tour – a suicide awareness and prevention project set up by two parents, who both lost sons to mental illness.

The rain lashed down as the crowd huddled together, friends and strangers alike, under the arches at Newcastle University. It seemed a fitting scene as the contributors spoke.  One after another describing how their lives had been touched by love, loss and ultimately the precious but delicate flame of hope. The symbolism was unavoidable, sheltering together from the storm outside, subconsciously nurturing that flame.

Suicide is the biggest killer of men and women under 35 in the UK. More than road traffic accidents. More than cancer. Seventeen people die by suicide every single day. Just let that sink in.

Suicide is a stark manifestation of the mental health crisis.  Like physical health, prevention is key.  Anything from having a cuppa and a chat with a friend, to specialist clinical support.  As with physical health, the intervention must match the condition.  If you’re having a heart attack, you wouldn’t call a homeopath.

Mental ill health has many causes – childhood trauma, bereavement, discrimination, isolation, poverty, stress. But it’s this last one, stress, that I see most often.

Famous health researcher Prof. Michael Marmot describes a certain kind of stress linked to our position in society – the status syndrome. The ‘stress arising from the inability to control our lives, to turn to others when we lose control or to participate fully in all that society has to offer. A way to stress an animal, of the human or non-human variety, is to remove control.’

It’s no fluke that the most successful political slogan this century was ‘take back control’.

If you asked 100 random people from Blyth, Berwick or Byker if they feel in control of their lives, I’d be surprised if more than 10 answered yes. Not surprising, given last year the Collins Dictionary word of the year was ‘permacrisis’.

From Brexit to Covid to the cost-of-living crisis, we are being told to ‘hold our nerve’ as the good times are maybe, possibly, hopefully, just around the corner. But let’s not kid ourselves, if you’re the CEO of a mail, rail, water or oil company – the good times are already here.  In fact, they are better than ever! The boss of Shell pocketed almost £10million last year.  By comparison, a first year Junior Doctor in the NHS will earn under £30k, and have to repay £70k in student debt. That’s ‘status syndrome’ right there.

My politics is simple.  I believe Britain should be run in the interests of the people who do the work. I believe that people should be treated with dignity and respect. I believe a decent quality of life should be available to all – not just the CEOs and investment bankers. And I believe that people should be given the tools and support to control their own destinies.  And that includes carers, the retired, the young and those unable to work through ill health or disability.

As Mayor, I work hard to help people in the region regain that sense of control over their lives. It could be through skills training – allowing people to earn more money to ease those end-of-the-month woes. It could be regaining confidence and fighting isolation by joining a group crafting session at a community hub we’ve supported. It could be taking the leap to start a small business with funding we’re providing.

When we take those steps to reclaim control, we are telling ourselves that hope persists.

As the late Tony Benn put it ‘there are two flames burning in the human heart all the time. The flame of anger against injustice, and the flame of hope you can build a better world.’

So, who carries the baton of hope in such dark and challenging times? Surely, it’s all of us. So, let’s nurture that flame – in ourselves and each other.