A handy man in a crisis

“It was the most terrifying experience of my life – I thought I was going to die,” says Colin Hammond describing his feelings during his first panic attack.

Hammond is chief executive and founder of No Panic, a charity that was set up to help people suffering from anxiety disorders, which last month won the overall prize at Community Care’s annual awards as well as coming in as winner in the mental health category.

The charity proves that small is beautiful, and it’s impossible not to be impressed by what has been achieved by Hammond and his wife Marion who is newsletter editor, assistant treasurer and helpline co-ordinator. The couple runs No Panic from their home having turned an upstairs bedroom into a fully equipped office. Helping them is a team of volunteers and just two paid members of staff: Lilian Owens, national development officer and Tina Baker, part-time membership secretary.

Hammond’s personal experience of anxiety was the catalyst for setting up the organisation after his career as a senior manager within the NHS in London was interrupted by the onset of agoraphobia in 1982: a condition, he says, that came out of nowhere. “My life just stopped, it was devastating.” With the right help from his local hospital he overcame the illness and, in 1986, moved to Shropshire to open a business which he and Marion ran successfully for three years until Hammond’s agoraphobia returned.

By 1991, his worsening condition, and his wife’s serious heart problem, forced them to sell their business and think about the future. Hammond had also developed monophobia, which is a fear of being apart from your partner or carer. “What that meant was that for eight years I could not get past my front door, and Marion became a prisoner of my fear,” he says.

“We had to ask ourselves what we were going to do with the rest of our lives, and I thought that with the knowledge I had gained I could help other people who were suffering with anxiety attacks,” he adds.

The facts about anxiety disorders are unsettling. No Panic’s figures show that nearly one in five people will develop anxiety problems with many of those going on to develop more serious and related problems. This means that at any time in the UK there could be nearly five million agoraphobics; nearly one million people with social phobias; up to four million with specific phobias; up to two million with obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD); and up to two million on tranquillisers. More worrying still is that around 75 per cent of all anxiety sufferers do not get professional help.

Hammond’s experience of services in Shropshire was that they were thin on the ground and that, even when he was able to get help, professionals often had scant understanding of how to help. “I was in the middle of a panic attack when the community psychiatric nurse came to see me,” he explains. “She took one look at me and ran from the house.”

They decided to set up a local helpline and use the knowledge Hammond had gained to help others. “We put an advertisement in the local paper saying: ‘Recovering agoraphobic is interested in setting up a local group to help others’ and asking for volunteers to help people with anxiety problems,” Hammond explains. Four volunteers were recruited, more followed and they began to help people in the county via a helpline operating initially as part of the Midlands’ division of Phobic Action. “Gradually the number of people calling the helpline grew and we realised people were calling from up and down the country. We were a national service – it had taken on a life of its own,” Marion says.

They decided to set up a charity on their own, and started No Panic in 1992. The service grew from word of mouth and informal advertising – leaflets were sent to GP surgeries, libraries and citizens advice bureaux, and the Hammonds realised there were a lot of people who wanted to get involved in running the charity and helping others but who were mostly unable to leave their homes. “We pioneered the concept of management meetings by telephone which gave people who were socially isolated the opportunity to participate in helping others,” Hammond says. This approach has seen the membership grow from 20 members to its current figure of 3,000.

As the membership has grown, No Panic’s services have expanded to meet demand. In its first year the helpline received 250 calls. This year the calls to the helpline will exceed 40,000. That helpline is open 365 days a year from 10am-10pm staffed by 70 trained volunteers who work a series of three-hour shifts, switching to an anxiety crisis line answerphone service outside of these hours where a pre-recorded message talks distressed callers down from an attack.

Where people are able to leave their homes, No Panic runs local self-help groups, and self-help behaviour therapy groups. For those who can’t, telephone recovery groups led by trained group leaders are available with one-to-one telephone mentoring on offer for anyone who finds the prospect of taking part in a group too daunting. It also runs a telephone befriending service, produces written recovery programmes for phobias and OCD sufferers and a range of books and materials offering practical help on overcoming anxiety disorders.

No Panic also has a website, developed by one of the volunteers, where people can get information and support from other sufferers in the members’ forum area – by early November this year the website had received close to 200,000 hits.

Everyone connected with the organisation was “absolutely thrilled” with their success in the awards. “I was delighted we had won the mental health category – that in itself was wonderful – but to win the overall award was fantastic,” Hammond says. “We owe a huge thank you to all our volunteers who have made it possible.”

The £13,000 prize money will be used to provide recovery and befriending groups using teleconferencing, and also to recruit and train staff from the statutory sector as part of a strategy to move decision-making into the hands of service users. It also wants to make sure statutory service providers are trained to use teleconferencing as a way of delivering services.

It also hopes to extend its work into prisons where, Hammond says, there is a huge need for its services, and looking further ahead they would love to take their work out into schools.

“I want to get into the skills of demystifying anxiety as part of a mental health problem so if young people see it happening they recognise it and are not frightened of it. That way we can start to have a generation growing up which accepts mental health and mental health problems as an illness like any other.”

– For more information see website www.nopanic.org.uk

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