He said: “There was a day where I noticed that I was perceiving more things in a sensory way than I usually would, but I was young at the time.
“Over the coming months and years, it became more obvious that these were sensory hallucinations. It took a while for me to realise that the voices were perhaps in my head and they weren’t a radio trapped in the wall that I couldn’t get to.
“It’s really strange to know you’re delusional about certain things but you still can’t shake that belief. There are those phobias and fears that are so incoherent and when I say them out loud and try to explain it to people it can feel like ‘oh my goodness I am actually a crazy person’.
“I can’t shake that feeling but also it’s so logical. Some things are just absolute facts and no matter how much you try to resist them those beliefs just don’t go away.
“As an early teenager, people couldn’t understand my justifications of certain things and I couldn’t understand how they couldn’t see my justifications of things.
“That was the first time I really noticed a difference between my experience and what other people were living.
“I didn’t realise that it was abnormal for a really long time. There was a really long period where I didn’t understand how people were functioning with the same problems that I had.”
Spencer’s book, which combines poetry and prose, has been a work in progress for 18 months, beginning after he made an attempt to take his own life.
“About two years ago I made a suicide attempt and jumped out of a window. I broke my spine and that was kind of the first time I’d ever considered how my mental health could affect other people,” he said.
“That’s a big part of the book – we always think about looking after ourselves with mental health but how do you care about the people who care for you? Because some people got really hurt in the process.
“Around six months after that, when I moved to Manchester, I was speaking to a friend who had been affected really badly by my mental health. I decided that, for the first time, I really wanted to make positive moves to try and change myself so I started writing the book.”
An encounter with Dundee-based author Tina McGuff, who wrote a memoir about her recovery from anorexia, was key in Spencer’s decision to share his story.
“She made me believe how honest we need to be with our mental health. It’s great talking about ending stigmatisation but the only way to do that is to actually educate and speak, which is really what I wanted to do,” he added.
“Over those 18 months I focused on writing, developing poems and trying to rack my brain for everything that other people might not know about schizoaffective disorders, even if it may be obvious to me.
“I tried to Google for some self-help books to see if there was anything about coping mechanisms. There were quite a lot of stories and information but there wasn’t really anything about how you live it and how you can function alongside it, rather than recover from it.
“You have to learn to make it a part of your life and accept that, which is what the main premise of the book became; how to make this as accessible to people who would have absolutely no understanding of the situation.
“When you meet someone in the street you have no idea about their background or their daily life or how difficult it might be for them to keep up with the same routine as you.”
The book, which was published on Sunday, is currently ranked number one in new releases for poetry books on Amazon.
He said: “The initial reaction was really beautiful. The amount of messages I’ve received and support from people that I would never have expected has been amazing.”
Spencer is now looking to the future and is hopeful for what a post-lockdown world looks like.
“I’m currently not taking any medication, I prefer to try and just live my best life as I can with the tools that I have,” he said.
“I’m definitely in a better place now than I was two years ago in terms of my mental health but it doesn’t mean that those problems are gone, it just means I have better coping mechanisms.
“I can definitely make it through the next months but I think it’s going to be a mixed bag.
“I would like to stress, particularly in quarantine, the importance of looking after yourself and making sure that the people you love are OK.
“It’s a really difficult time. Humans need to look after each other, we can’t be selfish right now.”
The fact that more adults in Dundee have a mental health condition than the Scottish average might not come as much of a surprise.
Poverty, addiction and unemployment – three things the city struggles with – are all associated with poor mental wellbeing.
But what might be surprising is that according to new data, women are more likely than men to have a mental health condition.
According to Dundee’s new Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategic Plan, which will be discussed by councillors next week, the highest rate for adults reporting a mental health condition in Dundee is among women aged 39-45.
Ash Mullen, 37, a student mental health nurse and founder of mental health group Let’s Talk Tayside, said: “We’re taught in our training that women are more likely to speak about their problems than men.
“I think mental health touches everyone at some point in their life but maybe it’s easier for women generally to talk about it – to their friends or their doctor. I have anxiety and after I started speaking about it I realised it will never go away, but you can develop tools to cope with it.
“Ultimately it depends on the individual but there’s a reason groups like Andy’s Men’s Club are there to get more men to talk about how they’re feeling.”
Another men’s mental health group is Art Angel, based at Enterprise House, which runs art, drama and film sessions.
Manager Rosie Summerton said: “Because of the increase in suicide in young men, and if you look through the mental health strategy, the figures are appalling for Dundee.
“There is a huge amount of people and young people turning up with mental health issues and I think we need to really address that.
“I think young men have found it more difficult to seek help than young women might.
“I think the reason why we are starting young men’s groups is that young men find it difficult to speak out and ask for help when things aren’t going well.
“To be able to offer them something which is almost like an alternative form of communication is really useful.”
Dundee’s mental health strategy outlines a number of measures aimed at increasing good mental wellbeing, including an emphasis on the social aspects of recovery, and delivering more mental health and wellbeing short courses in community settings.
Art Angel member Dylan Hood, 21, said: “It gets you doing things you want to do and seeing people you want to see. It’s a distraction from your own mind, because I can get trapped in my own mind sometimes.
“It’s about people who have had similar experiences to you and if you want to speak about it they will happily speak to you about it, and encourage you to come out your shell.”
Aaron Third, 24, added: “It’s just nice being around people who share the same experiences as you.
“I come to the art group on Fridays, and when I do, I feel like nothing else takes my focus away from drawing.”
Group co-ordinator Becca Greig added: “We don’t ask them what their mental health problem is.
“It gives them the freedom to just work without being judged or worrying about being judged.”
Art Angel will be holding a group exhibition at 5pm on Thursday, at Enterprise House on North Lindsay Street. To attend, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 01382 228383 December 19.
Every day in Scotland, an average of two people die from suicide.
It is the leading cause of death among people aged 20-34 in the UK – with the rate considerably higher among men.
Sadly, it’s an issue all too familiar to many in Dundee – so much so that it’s led to intense scrutiny of local mental health services and an inquiry being launched. All last week, events were held to highlight the issue for Suicide Prevention Week. As part of that, the Tele has spoken to four people who have attempted to take their own lives, about their experiences and how they came through them.
They’re all members of the Blue Wings group, set up in Dundee by Robbie Russell after his frustration grew at the “underfunded” mental health services on offer in Tayside.
The group previously led calls for patrols to be introduced to the Tay Road Bridge, following a number of incidents involving people contemplating suicide or taking their lives on the crossing.
Dave Johnston, 43, from Claverhouse, became aware of suicide in a previous workplace.
He said: “Part of my day-to-day work involves taxying when my other operation is out of season so I quite regularly meet people in the taxis who experience mental health problems and suicidal tendencies. My own personal belief is that people are let down by the system.
“Right now if someone goes up to Carseview, they’ll be turned away on the vast majority of occasions without any treatment at all.”
Although the issue is common throughout Tayside, Dave said he has seen people around him being afraid to admit their dark thoughts to the authorities, calling for more effort to bring understanding to the system.
Dave said: “I’ve got experience from speaking to somebody very recently who had attempted their own life and were taken to Carseview.
“They were taken overnight and their only experience the next morning was that a police surgeon spoke to them and asked if they still felt suicidal. Nobody in their right mind would say yes because they don’t want to be kept in police custody and they were released that morning.”
He said including people who have experienced suicide themselves is needed in the system.
He said: “The folk that deal with these issues day in and day out may have ideas about it but perhaps the best people to talk to them and give them advice are the people that are suffering from the problems themselves.
“We still live in a very macho environment where it’s seen as a weakness to speak about these types of things. It’s not a weakness, it’s an illness.”
Robbie Russell, 28, from Arbroath, said he became angry and lonely during his teenage years, eventually attempting suicide at age 16 for the first time.
He said: “I was fine when I was younger, but when I got to my teenage years, I was quite angry.
“I was seen as a bad kid.
“I was never recognised as someone with mental health issues. It followed me into my late teens – I started getting arrested and turned to drugs as a shield to get out of it but it didn’t work.”
Robbie said he struggled to open up about the way he was feeling.
He added: “It was instilled into me about pride. You’re a man, you’re not really supposed to have feelings.
“That’s not the case – we’re all human and everyone feels an emotion and everyone should be allowed to express it.
“The first person I told was my mum. She’s always been my rock, I have always been a bit of a mummy’s boy. She has talked me out of a lot of situations.”
At his most vulnerable, Robbie started hiding under his bed and felt like he was not being taken seriously.
“I was let down by the system. Back then, there was far too much ignorance – everyone was just playing you off like you’re an attention-seeker,” he said.
Robbie later founded the Blue Wings group to help others who were feeling suicidal with the hope of developing the Facebook group into a charity.
“I started getting a lot better and opening up a lot more than I used to,” he said.
“I started accepting things a lot more.”
Aged 13, Tina Grant, from Douglas, tried to take her own life for the first time. She said she would do anything to get the pain she was feeling out of her head.
Tina said: “I felt dead for such a long time. I tried to do pills, slit my wrists, drink, everything.
“I didn’t know how to deal with it all so I thought that was the only way to do it.
“When you’re in a dark place and have so many bad things going on in your life, you just want to escape it.”
Tina, now 35, went through her suicide attempts for two years before telling her mum.
She said: “I hid it from my mum and stepdad for a long time and when they actually saw the razor on my wrists, that is when they got the help for me when I was about 15.
“I never really had anyone to talk to and speaking to someone is such a helpful tool.”
Although Tina admits she has not fully recovered from feelings of suicide, she is able to face the day more easily after opening up to other people.
She said: “I still deal with it now but I’m dealing with it a lot better because instead of turning to drink, I talk to my friends and family and that makes me feel so much better.
“It was like a weight had been lifted off me and I felt like a new person.
“I felt happier, freer and alive.”
Now, Tina is looking to get into care work and help others who are feeling suicidal.
She said: “If nobody knows of the groups available to you, go online and talk to people – it’s the best thing to do. Nobody is alone.”
Gavin Elliot, 20, from Broughty Ferry, has been on the edge of the Tay Road Bridge three times and still feels like he has not overcome his suicidal thoughts.
He said: “I was in care since I was about seven. Life was tough from the beginning.
“I tried multiple times to kill myself – whether it was sticking scissors to my throat, jumping off the bridge, trying to hang myself, trying to suffocate myself.
“Anything that I could try, I tried it because I thought the only way out was to end myself.”
He added: “Last time I tried was two years ago when my father passed away.
“I was at the edge of the Tay Road Bridge on the other side of the barrier when police came and they pulled me away.”
Gavin said he kept himself hidden from the world and only started talking to others when his support workers noticed.
He said: “Every day I’d wake up in the morning and think, why? What’s the point in me waking up when it is the same old routine every day? I would spend months on end in my house alone with no visitors – no physical contact, nothing. I sat alone and blocked everyone out.”
After ending up on the bridge, he was taken to Dundee’s Carseview mental health facility but said he did not receive much support.
“People at Carseview would look at me, say I was OK and send me home without any treatment whatsoever,” he claimed.
To get his life back on track, Gavin said he turned to BMXing which has helped him through his difficulties.
More than 5,000 young people in Scotland have been denied mental health treatment during the wait for a national probe into rejected applications.
Nicola Sturgeon was challenged repeatedly at First Minister’s Questions on her government’s progress in tackling mental health issues.
Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard said the SNP administration has let down vulnerable children by taking more than a year to complete an investigation into why so many youngsters are not getting the treatment they seek.
In Tayside and Fife alone, 816 young people have been knocked back by Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services since last March, when the government promised to launch the review.
Labour’s analysis of the Scottish Government figures showed the national figure was 5,410.
“Nicola Sturgeon once claimed she had a sacred responsibility to make sure every young person gets the same chance to succeed,” Mr Leonard said.
“She has abdicated that responsibility to some of the most vulnerable children in Scotland.”
Ms Sturgeon said the results would be published on June 12, adding there are legitimate reasons why children are not offered CAMHS treatment.
“We announced an audit, we had to plan how that audit was going to happen so that we get it right,” she said.
“The work is now underway and I’ve given the progress report on that.
“It’s important that we get that work right in order that the action that flows from it are the right actions.”
She added that the 2017/18 budget for mental health exceeded £1 billion for the first time, while the CAMHS workforce has increased by 65%.
Meanwhile, Jenny Marra, the Labour MSP, asked what progress had been made towards setting up an emergency mental health unit in Dundee that provides 24-hour support.
For Mental Health Awareness Week, we spoke to mental health campaigner Jonny Benjamin MBE, whose important and life-affirming memoir The Stranger on the Bridge (Bluebird) was released earlier this month.
The moving title chronicles the journey Benjamin undertook in 2014, to find and thank the stranger who stopped and saved his life, six years previously.
What inspired you to write The Stranger on the Bridge?
This year marks ten years since I had my first breakdown, received my diagnosis and went to the bridge to take my own life. Finally I am in a very different place and have learnt a great deal about my own mind and mental health in general over the past decade. It felt very timely to write about my journey now.
Have you always been interested in writing? How did it feel revisiting the childhood diaries that you sample throughout?
Writing has always been incredibly therapeutic for me. Growing up I found it difficult to express my mental health issues vocally, so writing became a key outlet. Revisiting my childhood diaries was a challenging but cathartic experience. I knew I’d been distressed throughout my youth, but I had forgotten just how much I was struggling in silence.
What was the most challenging part of the project?
I think the most challenging part of the project was finally letting the manuscript go and it being published for people to read. It is such a personal and intimate book, and there was a lot in there that people didn’t know about so I felt extremely nervous in the weeks leading up to publication. Now that people have started reading it though and the response has been overwhelmingly positive I feel much more relaxed.
What impact are you hoping the book will have on its readers?
I hope it will give the reader an insight into mental illness that perhaps they haven’t had before. More than anything, I would like the book to offer those that are struggling some hope that they can overcome the adversities they are experiencing.
What has the reaction been like since sharing your story?
The reaction has been so positive. Mental health is something that touches so many of us. For such a long time it has been a taboo, but finally the silence and the stigma attached to mental illness seems to be shifting.
You’re a passionate mental health campaigner – would you say that public perception of mental health has changed or evolved in recent years? What part do you think publishing plays in this?
Publishing can play a huge role in changing attitudes towards a topic like mental health. Matt Haig’s powerful bestseller Reasons To Stay Alive helped my Mum to understand and talk about mental illness with me for the first time.
It’s an exciting time in terms of publishing on this subject. I’m seeing more and more books focusing on this area. I’m particularly looking forward to reading Natasha Devon’s A Beginners Guide To Being Mental which is published later this month. I know that it’s going to be a groundbreaking book about mental health.
Do you think the industry has a responsibility to be sharing more stories like this?
For a long time we’ve only had the opportunity to read primarily challenging stories on mental health. Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is a prime example of this. It is a gripping story but ultimately it is one of despair and hopelessness.
I would love to see more stories on bookshelves that offer the reader hope, whilst remaining accurate and honest, of course. Matthew Quick’s The Silver Linings Playbook is one such book which is hopeful and yet doesn’t shy away from the day to day, difficult reality of living with a mental illness.
Finally, are you working on anything new at the moment?
Myself and Britt Pflüger, who I co-wrote this first book with, are now working on our second book. It will be a tribute to overcoming adversity, with contributions from various individuals who have achieved it. I’m really looking forward to working on this book. Writing The Stranger On The Bridge was hard at times because of its content, but our new book will be much lighter and more positive.
Going forwards I think I would love to write books on mental health for children and young people. 75% of all mental health issues start in adolescence so it’s vital we address the subjects of mental illness and suicide from a young age. I know it would have made a real difference to me to have read a book on mental illness when I was suffering silently in my teenage years.