Orcadian Column, 18 May 2023

18 May 2023

I’ve always taken the view that time spent in the smaller isles is good for the soul. Indeed, one of the great pleasures of being Orkney’s MSP is that travelling out to each of the isles over the course of a year is in the job description. Invariably, I return from such visits with plenty of issues to follow up but also with a sense of calm restored that cannot be attributed solely to the comfort eating of homebakes.

So I was naturally delighted to be invited last Saturday to help with the formal opening of the Eleanor Barr boardwalk in Rousay. Overseen by the Development Trust, using funding from the Community Land Fund, the boardwalk is set up in the moors, commanding breathtaking views over the north isles, even on a misty day. Made from durable recycled plastic, and incorporating native plants, it will be a real asset to the island for many years to come, providing an effective way of connecting people to place.

I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest that many of us are guilty of taking for granted, or simply failing to carve out time to make the most of the astonishing natural environment around us. That’s more than just a shame, but hopefully the boardwalk in Rousay can literally pave the way for more local residents and visitors to enjoy the stunning landscape while simultaneously unlocking benefits in terms of better physical and mental health.

It’s certainly a fitting legacy to the memory of Eleanor Barr, who tragically died last year, but whose love of the natural environment inspired the boardwalk and whose efforts as local Ranger did so much to see the project realised.

I was reflecting again on the Rousay visit as I headed into the constituency office on Monday morning at the start of Mental Health Awareness Week. Of course, raising awareness, talking more openly and supporting those in need of help with their mental health is vitally important all year round, but such ‘weeks’ can be helpful in providing a focal point and a spur to action.

Amidst a cost of living crisis, with many people feeling uncertain about the future, this year’s theme, understandably, is ‘anxiety’. It was a theme picked up during my visit later that day to Orkney Blide Trust, where I met with Clare Allison, the Service Manager. Clare highlighted a concerning rise in those accessing the Blide, though it is reassuring to know that the service is able to provide advice, support as well as activities, over which its members have control or the responsibility for delivering.

I heard too about the targeted work the Blide is doing in collaboration with Orkney NFU and others reaching into the farming community. As was underscored in a parliamentary debate last week, tackling problems of poor mental health amongst farmers and crofters is often made more difficult due to issues of isolation, a lack of anonymity and increased stigma.

Collaboration is also at the heart of the Distress Brief Interventions initiative that sees the Blide working alongside emergency services, NHS24 and the community mental health team in a bid to ensure those in distress are dealt with compassionately and offered a quick and appropriate referral for help. As Clare observed, many who have been supported through DBI have gone on to become Blide members.

There is no doubt, though, that statutory and third sector services are under immense pressure. More resources are needed and we remain a distance away from achieving parity of esteem in the treatment of mental and physical health.

At the same time, politicians and the media have a duty to act responsibly. In legitimately highlighting the difficulties individuals, families and businesses are facing, we must avoid making people feel more anxious or vulnerable.

In terms of supporting better mental health, there is no single solution, of course. Cases can be highly complex, requiring significant, ongoing interventions and support. However, we all have mental health and would do well to take more care looking after it, recognising when it needs attention. Taking the time to connect with people and place, with or without the aid of a boardwalk, would certainly do no harm.