This week is the week that we welcome the 100th member of the Rural Mental the Forum into this unique network and it is a milestone that rightly should be celebrated.

The Forum is not simply a network of organisations meeting to talk and work together: it is effectively the most significant and comprehensive exercise in community participation and engagement that I have known in the 28 years I have been in the voluntary sector.

Through the 100 member organisations we are reaching over 500,000 people in remote parts of the country, including many who experience poor mental health, poverty, exclusion and disadvantage, and consequently feel completely powerless to influence the political, social and economic factors that control their lives.

Developing this network is building trust and engagement from the ground up – giving people the space and time to speak for themselves and to articulate in their own words what matters to them. The message they are giving us is that, if we continue to view mental health through the lens of current mental health services alone, we risk confining people to ‘serviceland’ where change is limited at best to small improvements to the status quo; but where the basic limitations on their lives remain in place, robbing them of hope or ambition for any kind of truly different future.

The Forum has commissioned and carried out research into the experiences of people in rural Scotland who live with poor mental health, and the people we spoke to told us that they didn’t want to move from service to special project and back again – they wanted to live in their communities, enjoying ordinary community facilities, with support available when they needed it. They described a supportive community as one where their neighbours were there for them and where they could access low-level non-clinical help and support to keep them well.

The Forum is bringing these voices into the same room as those with the resources, influence, and capacity to do something about these issues: Government officials; health and social care decision-makers, major agricultural and rural bodies; research institutes and universities.

But the most important thing about the Forum is that it has highlighted that in spite of the diversity of interests and differing priorities of the stakeholders, there is a common, shared and often very personal cause. Our Convenor has met high-powered senior professionals who express concern for their own mental health or the mental health of people close to them; Forum members have disclosed personal lived experience in public forums, breaking down the barriers between those who provide support and those who need it.

An immediate aim is to make sure we identify and support people who are at risk of harm, and those who need signposted to services and support, and we have encountered people in this position and been able to help. Beyond this, we aim to bring communities together behind this common cause of keeping people well, as a well community is a thriving community where everyone can feel connected and mental health is everyone’s business and not something that is only addressed through formal mental health services.

I wanted to post this personal reflection during this very special week, as I feel that what can easily be lost in all the strategies, reports and action plans, is the passion we all have for what we are doing and the common and unequivocal belief that what we are doing really matters.

Our organisation has worked in rural areas for nearly 40 years, but this piece of work has completely changed our focus away from thinking about new services for people who have mental health issues; to thinking about what it means to take a community approach to mental well-being – and this requires community participation and a total commitment to partnership working.

Last year, I attended a session at an international mental health knowledge exchange and a mental health professional from New Zealand asked us to think about the difference between change and transformation – and this stuck with me. My vision is that the partnership and engagement approach of the Forum will allow us not simply to change the status quo, but to transform the lives of people in rural Scotland.

Frances Simpson
Chief Executive