MENTAL health problems affect one in four of the population but the whole area is still very misunderstood. Angela Kelly highlights a local organisation which offers a practical helping hand and meets one woman for whom it has been a life-saver.

TRAUMA in her childhood left a legacy which affected Lilian Chamberlain all her adult life yet she did not realise this until her own children were born.

"Then I had a breakdown," explained Lilian, now 58. Ten years later, and after treatment, the same thing happened again.

She took an overdose and was plunged into a long, dark tunnel of depression which only showed a chink of light when she became involved in a local group called MhIst.

This stands for Mental Health Independent Support Team and is now the name of an organisation that first started in 1992 as the Bolton Support Council for Mental Health.

It is a registered charity with a certain amount of funding, but it relies largely on public donation and its own fund-raising to exist.

Lilian knows that without its existence she could never have come out of her depression, or "really started to live again".

Orthodox medicine offered no real hope of a long-term "cure" to the condition that had blighted her life, and lost her countless jobs because she was unable to control her emotions or prevent an awful downward spiral.

When someone suggested that she really needed someone to talk to, to help confront her past and deal with it, MhIST's name came up. "It was the best thing that ever happened to me," she said.

That was in 2000 and the help and support Lilian received there not only helped her mental health hugely, but gave her a role in life when she volunteered to work for the group.

Today, she is its administrative officer, along with just a couple of other staff, ensuring that the services at the handsome building Deajon House, the organisation's base in Chorley New Road keep running smoothly. Keep helping people in need.

MhIST provides support, advocacy and counselling, with befriending and self-help groups for anyone over 16 suffering from self-harming, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), bipolar disorder, anxiety and depression.

The group also helps the carers of mental health sufferers, who have to deal with the daily strain of looking after someone who is plainly often going through hell.

Lilian was lucky; she had the support of a loving family, in particular her husband, Jack, who is vice-chair of MhIst.

The organisation helps around 700 people every year. Referrals come from GPs and from hospital staff, but the toughest part is probably getting the message over to the general public that mental ill-health really can happen to anyone.

"Yes, there are still so many misconceptions about mental health, so many prejudices. But, one in four of the population of the UK will have mental health problems at some time in their lives so it is very widespread, and there is no shame in it," she said.

MhIST has done much not only to help sufferers but also to dispel the myths about those unlucky enough to have mental health problems.

This year for the first time, for example, a team made up of staff, service users and friends has competed in the Bolton Ladies' Rounders League.

This has proved a success on several levels, not least the obvious improvement in the mental wellbeing of some of the service users involved who have gained confidence and a healthy hobby at the same time.

In fact to raise funds to help keep the service going MhIST is running a rounders tournament on August Bank Holiday Monday (August 28), at the Bolton Rugby Union Football Club grounds in Avenue Street, Halliwell.

They have invited 16 teams to take part and local voluntary organisations can also have a stall at the lively event, which will also have a wealth of family attractions, for just £10.

A sportsman's dinner, with ex-Bolton Wanderers' favourite Phil Brown as speaker, is also planned for Friday, September 1 at Smithills & Heaton Conservative Club. This open-to-all event has tickets for the three-course dinner at £25.

And, to keep the open-door policy and continue its work in getting more public understanding, MhIST is having an open day on Thursday, September 7, with a tombola, raffle and crafts and cards made by service users. The Mayor and Mayoress of Bolton, Cllr Walter Hall and Mrs Sheila Hall, will be attending, to offer their official support to this much-valued charity.

The importance of keeping MhIST alive is proven every week of the year as new people discover this quietly under-stated but vital service.

"Of course we must keep going. People need help I did, and I can't imagine what would have happened to me if I hadn't discovered MhIST," Lilian added.

l To find out more about MhIST, or for more information about its fundraising events, contact Lilian Chamberlain on 01204-527200 or Jack Chamberlain.