‘Doing it for ourselves’

In 1988 I had a major breakdown and found myself in hospital. Not
long after that I took early retirement from teaching at the ripe
old age of 45. As part of my rehabilitation, I went to a mental
health centre in Merton, south London. Being a trade union activist
I soon immersed myself in the organisation and the politics of the
user movement.

At this time the idea was beginning to take root that mental health
patients could take some responsibility for their care and not rely
on drugs and mental health professionals telling them what to do.
This is not to say that psychiatrists and community psychiatric
nurses are not important, but it is becoming a mixed economy.
“Doing it for ourselves” is more and more an integral part of
mental health recovery.

Following my retirement I felt that I’d never be employed again. So
I made a conscious decision to work with people with mental health
problems and was appointed as a mental health user development
worker in Tower Hamlets, east London. The borough has more than its
fair share of deprivation and poverty and alongside this goes an
above average amount of health and mental health problems. My role
is not a clinical post but one of empowerment.

Tower Hamlets has established a service user network. At the moment
this consists of 16 groups that have our financial support. They
are responsible for their own budgets and organise their own
activities ranging from mutual support for various conditions,
visits, recreation, meals, training and alternative therapies. It
includes African Caribbean groups and Bangladeshi men’s and women’s

The William Place centre houses six of these support groups. Here
the principle of “doing it for ourselves” has been carried to its
conclusion. William Place had been a social services mental health
centre for some time. In 2003, it was closed by the council to save
£100,000. But, the authority didn’t take into account the
feelings of the service users in the area. They lobbied the council
and were given swipe cards to gain access to the building. Now
there are no staff in the centre and service users use it more than
ever before.

The lesson is obvious. Give users some resources and a place to
meet and they can do the job of supporting each other, particularly
by keeping people out of further hospital admission. This is not a
replacement for other mental health services but a strong support
of them. It has not been without its problems and we are lucky to
have one of our users, Rita Butcher, on board. She is the first to
admit that this has only been possible because service users worked
together to get it done. In the process talents have been
discovered and developed.

Mike Loosley is a mental health user development

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