Haverfordwest hitchhikers transform mental health centre

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Media captionGaz Owens went from hitchhiking to raise money to running a cafe offering mental health help

A group of hitchhikers is promoting a different kind of lift - transforming a shop into a drop-in centre giving mental health support.

Gaz Owens, 25, had already raised more than £12,000 with sponsored hitchhikes.

Now he is developing the Pembrokeshire centre where people can "just have a coffee", or seek counselling.

"At the moment with mental health you will wait to get to crisis point," he said.

"I feel there needs to be an intervention before."

Mr Owens, from Little Haven, and his friends organised a five-man hitchhiking race around the UK to "Get the Boys a Lift".

Then to raise more, they sold T-shirts bearing the phrase from a friend's basement.

Their not-for-profit brand was born and they now ship to eight countries.

Image caption Gaz Owens wants to help people before they reach "crisis point"

"If you are wearing a T-shirt that says 'Give Gaz a lift' or 'Get the Boys a Lift' it's like an instant 'oh what's that about?'. And then you've subconsciously started a conversation about mental well-being, mental health, and that kind of grew from there really."

More than two years since the project's inception, the friends have transformed the Haverfordwest centre, offering coffees and merchandise to get people through the door to talk about mental health.

Greg Walters, 24, has been involved since the early days and quit his job to help Mr Owens run the centre.

"We've tried to go about it in a pretty subtle way where we're not ramming it down people's throats," he said.

"If you want to talk about it, sweet. If you just want to come and get a coffee and hang out, then do that as well."

A recent Healthcare Inspectorate Wales report criticised the difficulty of accessing mental health services in Wales, with some patients waiting up to two years to access talking therapies.

The Welsh Government said: "We recognise the value of timely access to a range of psychological interventions, including talking therapies, and are providing additional funding for local health boards to improve access."

Image caption James Clancy was put on a two-month waiting list for help

At the centre, on-site mental health and drugs counsellors are available for drop-in sessions.

Julie Simmonds, a practice nurse at a nearby doctor's surgery, said: "Everyone I speak to has heard of them, and they all say what a fantastic thing it is they're doing."

Her surgery stocks their "pocket parachutes" - small packs people fill out with their own advice to carry with them and remind themselves of their own good advice in tough times.

Mr Owens said the centre's counsellors had already made referrals to services and support.

But it is as much about helping people before they become seriously ill.

"It seems to me like all the support is going towards the end of the waterfall, where people are at the real severe end, but you need to be speaking to the people upstream."

'Weight lifted'

James Clancy, 21, from St Davids, said he recently felt like his life was "spiralling out of control" - and was put on a two-month waiting list for counselling.

He has been using the centre several times a week while he waits for his first appointment.

"It's the start of something. If you help yourself get there first, once you've done it you'll feel a million times better, and have the weight off your shoulders lifted."

A spokeswoman for Hywel Dda University Health Board said: "We really welcome the supportive environment that our communities are creating, such as Get The Boys a Lift, in addition to NHS services.

"If any person has difficulty in navigating the different services available we would encourage them to speak to their GP at any time and they can help, whether it is a referral to an NHS service or signposting to other types of support as appropriate."

The friends are currently on their latest hitchhiking race around Britain - and beyond that Mr Owens said the mission was just to get more people talking.

BBC Wales Live is on BBC One Wales at 22:35 BST on Wednesday - or watch again on the BBC iPlayer

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