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Lochaber likes to be branded as the outdoor capital of the UK but it is in danger of becoming better known locally for a rising number of people either committing suicide or contemplating ending their own lives.
And that was the reason for a well-attended public meeting held in Fort William’s Nevis Centre on Tuesday night, when various groups agreed to help form two new peer-to-peer mental health support groups for the town – one for men and one for women.
Facilitators from Martyn’s Monday Club in Oban, the Samaritans, Ewan’s Room and Mikey’s Line all gave heartfelt talks on how their organisations came into being.
The meeting was hosted by Fort William-based Lochaber Hope and its manager, Alyson Smith, explained why it had been felt necessary to organise such an event.
‘The Highland statistics don’t reflect Lochaber’s statistics when it comes to suicide for men in the 24 to 45 age group – the rate is much higher here,’ she told us.
‘Between February last year and February this year, we had 14 men and three women come through the doors of Lochaber Hope and say they were going to commit suicide.
‘In the first two weeks of February this year alone we had six people, with the youngest aged just nine, saying they wanted to kill themselves. It is something we have been doing a lot of work on because we knew we had to do something.’
Asked if she would describe the situation in Lochaber as a crisis, Ms Smith paused: ‘Scared is how I feel. If we don’t do something now, things are going to be a lot worse in five years’ time.’
She said it was extremely difficult to put an actual figure on the number of people who took their own lives in Lochaber each year, but did say the 14 men and three women she had earlier referred to were all still alive.
Her Lochaber Hope colleague, Carrie Starkie, added: ‘We have got to find ways of breaking the stigma that still exists about mental health and get people talking,’ she said.
‘There is an increasing number of people telling us they feel they’d be better off dead and that is hugely concerning.’
Among those attending was Joyce Wells, whose 36-year-old son Gary ended his life when he walked in front of a train at Inverlochy in 2014.
She said peer support groups were badly needed in Fort William and was therefore delighted the meeting had proved so positive.
‘It is definitely needed here and if it can save one life, it will be worth it,’ she added.
Anyone interested in becoming a facilitator with the new groups is asked to contact Lochaber Hope on 01397 704836.