Mayor of Watford talks to Herts Mind Network about mental health
Our team recently caught up with the Watford Mayor Peter Taylor to talk about all things mental health.
James (our Marketing & Information Officer) and Ally (our Wellbeing Access Worker) sat down with Peter at West Herts College to find out more about his experiences as Watford Mayor, as well as how the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted mental health in the town.
Having been Watford Mayor for over three years now, how much has your role involved improving mental health in the town?
There are lots of organisations that are doing great work in the area. One of the jobs of the council is to pull it all together and identify if there are any gaps in provision.
A lot of the work that I did initially was around dementia. My grandad lived with dementia for many years and deteriorated quite quickly. I was conscious going around the town and knocking on doors chatting with residents, that we were quite frequently coming across people who were carers of someone living with dementia, and they were struggling with their own mental health.
The Alzheimer’s society estimates that there are 1,000 people in Watford living with dementia, so we’ve worked really closely with them to make Watford a much more dementia friendly town. For people living with dementia and their carers, I think that has been quite effective. We’ve actually been highlighted now as one of the best places in the country for the work that we are doing here.
But I know that mental health is much broader and I think there is work to do. Lockdown and the Covid-19 pandemic has had a huge impact and I am acutely aware that the need is growing and growing.
Since being in office, have you seen an increase in discussion around mental health?
Definitely, there are more conversations around it. Younger people are often more comfortable talking about it. With people my age and older, there is still a ‘stiff upper lip’ and ‘put on a brave face’ if you are finding things tough. So I think generationally it’s changing. Organisations like Herts Mind Network, Watford CSE Trust, and other groups are all playing their part in making the conversations more normal and acceptable, which is a really positive thing.
What has been your experience of the impact of Covid-19 on the mental health of people in Watford? How has it affected you personally?
At some points last year I was under pressure to close facilities, for example close the parks, lots of people were questioning whether we should keep them open. I didn’t close them because the risk of catching Covid-19 outside is very low, but also due to the mental health impact it would have. A significant number of people in Watford don’t have their own garden and rely on parks to get out and about for their own wellbeing.
I had a conversation in Oxhey park with a lady who had a fairly young child, she lived in a flat and was saying that since having the child she had suffered with her mental health, but the park is what kept her going. She lived close to it so was there everyday going for a walk, and was often meeting people for a coffee. So if you close facilities like that, I would question whether it would reduce Covid because people might start meeting in houses instead of the park.
In terms of my own mental health – when Covid first happened it affected my diary as a lot of the time I was out and about meeting groups, going to schools, opening new restaurants. I was also in the Town Hall going to various meetings, but then my diary completely emptied when Covid happened. All of those face to face meetings got cancelled and were soon moved to Zoom. I did find that some days I would be having 12 or 13 Zoom calls in a single day, a lot of them I was chairing as well. There were some difficult conversations around subjects like mortuary capacity, and I found that difficult. I have got the benefit of having a loving wife and family, so I do try to keep a work/life balance.
Would you be able to share ways in which you manage your own mental wellbeing?
I try as much as possible to have Sundays as a day that I don’t do any work. I like to go for nice long walks and maybe a pub lunch with the family, and if possible have a digital detox away from screens.
Conveniently we have the leisure centre near the Town Hall, so sometimes after work I will go straight to the gym, particularly if there have been any stressful meetings. I think doing this is better for my wellbeing rather than checking through social media. I am also fortunate that I have family and friends that I am able to talk to and help offload if I need it.
It can help to actually spend time in another part of the country as well. Particularly as even when I am relaxing in Watford with family on a weekend, I am still kind of semi ‘on duty’. People might come up to me and talk about things, and also I might notice things such as new graffiti on a bin. So it can be hard to switch off and sometimes it’s important for me to step away to a different area to have that break.
Are you seeing any barriers/challenges in relation to mental health that need addressing?
So I was a teacher before I worked in this job, and we had a counsellor their while I was teaching. She was fantastic and very busy with students wanting one-to-one support. I know lots of schools have made this a priority and the demand has risen really steeply. Quite often you come across families of students who are struggling and not able to access support, so this is an important thing that we’re addressing.
The other thing is isolation and loneliness, not just with the elderly but with all ages. We are keen to create opportunities for people to mix and meet. It might not always be labelled as mental health support but it quite often is in some way, it’s important for groups of people to be able to come together. One of the barriers at the moment is people being hesitant around Covid, which is totally understandable. So we are trying to create those chances for people to meet, but also being reassuring around Covid as well.
For example we recently did ‘carers walks’ and ‘mental health walks’ around local parks, where I went on walks with local people. Those were really popular, as soon as we advertised them there were lots of residents signing up. We’ve also got the Healthy Hub set up in Watford, which is providing a great deal of mental health support for everyone involved. We had one recently at the Watford Mosque where of course Herts Mind Network were in attendance.
Have you seen any local, shining examples of initiatives that contribute to the mental wellbeing of local residents?
I am finding that a lot of the faith communities are really coming together and are keen to support the community. There is a large network of places of worship all across the town. I was meeting with one yesterday who have a church on St Albans Road, and they were saying they are keen to get a coffee morning organised again. I think those sorts of things are so important to the fabric of the town.
Watford is a place where a lot of really great stuff happens. I also like to look at league tables (not just the premier league!). I always compare Watford to other places to see where we could be doing better. The Office of National Statistics does an assessment which measures how happy people are, and Watford residents are the happiest in the whole of the East of England. I think a lot of this is down to the community and things that are happening at the ground level. So my job is essentially to help people to create these positive things and move them forward.
Covid has been challenging, but it has resulted in more neighbourhood WhatsApp groups which are still going. People have been making sure their elderly neighbours have got food and things like that, so if anything, those connections have been strengthened.
We would like to thank Peter for his time and providing some fascinating insights around mental health. If you (or anyone you know) need support, you can browse our services here or you can get in touch on 02037 273600 if you would like more information about our service provision.
Posted on: 14th December 2021