As I write, sitting on a bench in the centre of Dundee, I watch people in masks walking in and out of shops. A lot of people have those light blue or white throwaway masks. There’s also a lot of black masks; and some folk, mainly women, have masks made out of flower-patterned cloth. And other people have masks with large filters, and they look like asbestos-removal workers, or beekeepers, or members of a SWAT team. Some children have bright, luminous green or pink masks; and other children have cartoon masks. I think I saw a goth with a skull mask, but that might have been a dream.
There are a few people who seem to struggle with the concept of wearing a mask. Some people don’t wear masks at all and think that putting one hand over their mouth when in a shop is as good as a mask. Other people get it half right/ half wrong, which means getting it completely wrong- nose covered but not mouth, or vice versa.
Outside one cafe, I saw a very small boy struggling to put his mask back on. On his first try, he looped the elastic around one ear, and then pinged the mask across the floor of the shopping centre. Second try, he put the mask over his eyes- like a blindfold, and then he stood totally still, perhaps surprised at suddenly not being able to see. His mum laughed and helped him.
I don’t like the way my glasses steam up when I’m wearing a mask but the fuzziness stops eventually. I like hiding behind a mask, because sometimes I think I’m invisible. The thing is people who know me, from my maskless days, instantly recognise me. One time when it was raining, I had my hood up and I wore a baseball hat and a mask, when an old friend spotted me. She instantly said: “Hi Harvey!” I was amazed. She hadn’t realised I was invisible.
Like everyone else, I’ve seen news stories about people moaning about having to wear masks. Trump supporters in the USA – defending their constitutional right to breathe in anything they goddamn choose to, even if it kills them. And, of course, it does. And, being an amateur science geek, I’ve read articles in Scientific American and New Scientist – describing, with dollops of gory details, the nature of the virus and how it spreads. So, I’ve ended up just as paranoid and haunted as everyone else – about getting zapped by an invisible midget monster
There’s a lot more could be said about masks, but that’s not where this blog wants to go. What I’m really thinking about is something just as important as wearing a mask.
Dundee is one of the most beautiful places in the world. Yet, every day someone here thinks about ending their own life. And some of those who think about it, do it. Not all. But even one is one too many. The actual numbers are terrifying, but I’m not going to talk about the statistics. I’m instead going to suggest something that is simpler than a lot of politicians and NHS managers believe. Let us decide to reduce suicides in Dundee faster and more effectively than has ever been tried in any poverty-battered city before.
Let us step beyond – reports, committees and headlines; and agree that a 24 hour, no appointment necessary, walk in centre, for people struggling with their mental health, is the biggest priority facing our city. To stop any more lost souls feeling that their only option is to walk to the bridge.
So, before any future Lockdown, open a centre. Before anyone else loses hope because of the icy winds blowing through our society, open a centre. It is not the solution to everything; but for some it would mean life itself.
Behind every mask is a person. And sometimes, when you take your blue mask off, or your flowery mask, or your cartoon mask, you’re still wearing a mask. You may show some hint of a feeling pushing you close to the edge, but you might not. It might be that, like I did (although I’m better now), you develop a slight twitch. Or, maybe you look away in every conversation. It could be – it’s because you are getting close to the edge. No one can be expected to see every sign. The virus of despair is invisible. Yet, we have one advantage over it: we know it’s there; and, because we know, we can fight it. We know how well we can fight to keep our people alive when, sometimes, it seems like a hopeless cause. In Dundee, we can remove one layer of hopelessness: blow away a dark mist hanging over our streets. Let’s open a centre and build a sanctuary. Let’s dedicate it to all those who live in our memories and to all those who will create new hope there – conversations, plans to survive, art and music and laughter and healing.
The main driving force in Dundee for a 24 hour centre is the family of Lee Welsh. Please support their campaign in any way you can.
In 2011, the See Me campaign published a book of writings called ‘A touch on the shoulder – an anthology of support’. I wrote this poem for it which seems appropriate here.