For most of this time I have coordinated mutual support groups in locations around the city. At these groups Members talk openly about their experiences in a supportive and non-judgemental environment.
Stoke is a city that was shaped by industry, mining, steel making and most of all, pottery manufacturing. Over the past forty years those industries have gone into sharp decline. The pits and steelworks have gone, and the pottery industry is a fraction of its former size
This has created both unemployment and social dislocation, both of which have had a massive impact on the mental health of local people. Jobs that had craft, meaning and status, have been replaced with ones that are routine and insecure or long-term unemployment.
Two examples from members of the groups I have met over the past few years stand for countless others.
One, a mild-mannered man on his fifties, something of an autodidact, he taught himself several languages, describes how contact with the DWP left him wanting to smash the first thing that came to hand. Unsure of what to do with him, they passed him from one useless course to another until his health snapped.
Another man with a degenerative condition that makes walking difficult, tells me about a dispiriting round of re-applying for PIP, getting turned down, appealing and having it reinstated. The whole sorry performance repeated every three years, even though the only change to his condition is that it gets worse.
The whole system seems designed to punish claimants at the time when they are at their most vulnerable. There are worrying overtones of a desire to punish the poor for bring poor that belongs to the darkest corners of the nineteenth century.
The net outcome of this is mental distress piled on top of physical illness and economic disadvantage. An analysis of the causes behind the majority of early deaths in the poorest parts of the UK would, I feel sure, reveal that the stresses of bring poor and being subject to a system where the default position is to treat you with suspicion, are to blame in most cases.