While Christmas is a joyous time for most it can also prove a challenging time for our stress levels, and it’s even harder for those with mental-health conditions.

But three North East women who overcame their own mental health experiences are aiming to transform the lives of others after completing their degrees together and joining forces to set up a bespoke counselling service designed to transform the current system.

Andrea Bartlett, Lynsey Curry, and Madeleine Hauxwell are each co-founders of One Place Together, a new counselling service, supported by the University of Sunderland’s Enterprise Place, designed to provide affordable and accessible care.

Mental health problems are beginning to gain greater understanding in wider society, but issues around stigma, cost, and the accessibility of help are still prevalent. With greater recognition there must also be improvements to support services.

“I went to the doctors at the age of 16 and broke down in tears, the first thing I got was a prescription of antidepressants, I felt like a failure,” says Lynsey Curry, 30, who’s experience alongside her fellow founders and Counsellors is not unique.

With the North East topping suicide rates in the UK according to ONS figures, there is clearly a need for a change of approach in the region.

Andrea Bartlett said: “Our vision for One Place Together is for counselling to be accessible to anyone who needs the service, to provide it at an affordable price, and to provide that counselling at the point of contact for the client with no waiting list and for as long as the client requires it. Mental health is just as important as physical health and help is available in a nonjudgmental, safe environment.”

Counselling in Britain is currently split into high cost private care, costing approximately £60 per hour, and GP care which is free but comes with long waiting lists and a cap on the number of sessions you can attend, meaning pressing or long-term mental health issues are potentially being exacerbated or unresolved.

Each of the founders had their own disappointing experiences with mental health care that inspired them to embark on the journey to becoming qualified counsellors. Andrea herself was a victim of an armed robbery while at work and had to juggle providing for her family and fulfilling her dream.

The 38-year-old added: “While working at McDonald’s I was held at knife point and made to hand over cash from the till. After suffering from the trauma I was referred to my GP for counselling and I went along feeling very nervous and anxious. The armed robbery is where my counselling journey began and it was the event that changed my life for the better.

“Being a mother to two children, being a wife, and trudging to work day in day out doing dead end jobs just to help provide for my family, always feeling like there was something more than this for me. Eight years later I decided to do something about it and signed up for a night course which was an introduction to counselling, that was the start of a new chapter.”

It was during that diploma at Bishop Auckland College that Andrea, Lynsey, and Madeleine first met and started a journey leading them to One Place Together. They each went onto complete a foundation degree and then an honours degree at the University of Sunderland, which required them all to undertake a placement alongside their studies.

Madeleine, who grew concerned about the over-medication of her friends with mental health issues, was inspired to join the course after her dad passed away in 2012 and she felt a push to doing something she felt was more worthwhile.

The 44-year-old said: “My counsellor journey began with my placement at the Rape and Sexual Assault Crisis Centre which turned into a paid job. Seeing people take their lives back is a fantastic experience and quite humbling, but it also gave me the realisation of how long people actually have to wait for counselling.

“The sad thing is it takes a lot of courage for a person to seek help, and when they do they usually need the help there and then, that is why we want to change things.”

With Andrea, Lynsey, and Madeleine changing their own lives over the last few years they are sticking with the University of Sunderland and have been accepted to become part of the Enterprise Place – an environment where students and graduates can get specialists advice and support to turn their business ideas into reality.

Their new premises is now up and running in Shildon, near Darlington, and the three women are excited to be taking on their first clients.

For more information about One Place Together, which offers free no obligation consultations, so people can see if counselling is right for them before committing to paid sessions, visit http://www.oneplacetogether.co.uk/ or email contact_us@oneplacetogether.co.uk