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The Big Interview: Mind over matter
MARK Smyth, 49, is CEO of mental health charity Swindon MIND, which is affiliated to the national MIND organisation. Swindon MIND is pressing for the Crisis House mental health facility in Stratton, currently threatened with closure, to remain open. Mark lives in Old Town with partner Jo and children Isobel, 14, and William, nine.
MARK Smyth’s CV starts with five years in staff accounts at the Royal Military College of Science.
It also includes a stint in marketing and design with an arts development organisation and another in an inclusive arts project for people with learning difficulties. He later had a senior role with a charity helping people with learning difficulties to empower themselves.
Oh, and let’s not forget the decade or so from about 1990 when he came within a hair’s breadth of rock stardom.
“I was in a reasonably successful local band called Shrink,” he said. “We were the second band after Billy Bragg to enter East Berlin after the wall came down.
“We ended up doing about three or four days afterwards, which was quite an experience. When people are coming through the turnstiles and handing in their guns, it’s an interesting place.
“After Shrink I was in a band called Cinnamon Smith. You send your demo tapes round...that shows my age – tapes...then you get a call and it’s the people who manage Radiohead. We put a record out with Island and we were signed by Mother Records, which is U2’s label, so that was good.
“You had a few years being paid to do exactly what you wanted to do. Jarvis Cocker invited us to a party. We were with Boy George for most of the evening but a fellow member of the band kept calling him Julian because he thought he was Julian Clary. He was sick on Boy George’s foot, but Boy George was very good about it.”
Mark is from Old Walcot. He is the younger of two sons born to Gillian, a nurse, and Peter, a time management engineer at Garrard’s. His time at Walcot and Parks School was followed by the Royal Military College of Science, and this was followed in turn by his time as a professional vocalist/guitarist.
“My time as a professional musician ended once I started a family,” he said. “I’m Swindon born and bred but the music took me everywhere. I had at that point to anchor myself to Swindon.”
Mark took over at the helm of Swindon MIND in May after the retirement of Kathleen Aitken, who had been with the charity since it began in the early 90s.
The organisation helps about 500 people with mental health issues every year, offering advocacy, advice, one-to-one support and group sessions for everything from lifting moods to stress-busting. It also offers art, music and creative writing groups. Where possible, Swindon MIND steps in to help people before newly-emerged problems worsen, although clients also include many people who have been through very severe crises and are re-entering everyday life.
Mark is passionate about his role, especially when it comes to ending the stigma that still surrounds mental health issues.
“If you’ve gone through the mental health system it stigmatises your life,” he said. “But we have to accept it affects all of us at some point, whether it’s ourselves or a friend or family member.”
Many people suffer because of economic woes. Mark said: “There are stresses that can occur because of redundancy and finance, so we work with the symptoms of those anxieties and stresses. We may offer one to one support or group sessions, but we’ll also try to work out a solution to the problems and support people as they find a way out of those situations.
“If you’re experiencing mental health problems you sometimes can’t see a way out, but there is a way out, to share and unburden, and to find support.”
The Crisis House at Sandalwood Court, Mark insists, is vital because it offers a demedicalised approach. It has a five-bed unit where people can stay while staff help them find solutions to problems.
Mark said: “If we can avoid intensive care and find other means to respond and support people in a demedicalised approach, then that is something we should be aiming for. The Crisis House offers that.”
Swindon MIND can be contacted via www.swindonmind.org and on 01793 432 031.
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