Pamela pushes barriers aside

For an initiative yet to celebrate its first birthday, Birmingham Council’s Pamela Project is making waves. In December it received Community Care’s carers award for the work it does within ethnic minority communities for carers of people with mental health problems.

Established in April 2005 the Pamela Project, an acronym for “proactive mentally empowering living activities”, seeks to better meet the needs of ethnic minority carers. Pamela was born after a six-month pilot in 2004 during which an Urdu, Punjabi and Hindi-speaking project worker in the council’s early intervention service noticed  gaps in services for carers of people with mental health difficulties and how the needs of non-white carers differed.

Jane Thakoordin, Birmingham Council’s social care and health department resource manager, is responsible for the Pamela Project. She says the main gap was the lack of opportunities for carers to meet and talk confidentially to other carers from ethnic minorities. 

Although there was some practical support available, the pilot found that their fears about mental illness were not being addressed in a culturally competent manner. Thakoordin says: “For some families one way of coping was to blame the illness on an event. While some professionals may have dismissed this belief system we found if we worked alongside clients’ beliefs and gently challenged them we could introduce the concept of recovery, and what it would mean for the whole family.”

With money from the council’s carers grant and the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund, the Pamela Project began. So far, its two support workers – one full-time and one part-time – and four volunteers   work with 20 families in Birmingham’s Sparkbrook and Springfield areas. The scheme also operates fortnightly support groups for younger siblings of people with mental health difficulties, working with the youth service to provide social activities so they can “run around and let off steam”, says Thakoordin.

The feedback from clients about the project has proved its value. One service user told Thakoordin that he felt his family communicated better after help from Pamela. “He said he saw his father in a different light and this had improved their relationship. In turn, the father saw his son as a young man with a future and not just someone with mental health difficulties.” Bringing together carers and the cared-for like this, says Thakoordin, can help to promote recovery.

She attributes the scheme’s success to its inclusive approach: “It is a simple model of providing support for carers and their loved ones at the same time.” At the same time as activities and courses are run for carers they are also run for people with mental health difficulties. This way, Thakoordin explains, the carers are more comfortable about attending sessions because they know their loved ones are in the room next door.

All carers from ethnic minorities who look after someone with a mental health problem can access the service. Thakoordin says they encourage self-referral by advertising their work in GPs’ surgeries and community centres.

It is not just carers who have welcomed the Pamela Project. Social workers and community psychiatric nurses have told Thakoordin that the scheme has helped carers “leap the barriers” they had encountered when trying to meet other carers.

Renewal fund money covers only two years so winning this award has thrown the scheme a lifeline. Thakoordin says the plan is to expand the service to the eastern part of Birmingham and to encourage more former users of the service to channel their skills into becoming volunteers.

So what does winning the award mean to those involved? Thakoordin says: “We are going to publicise that we have won this award and hopefully more families will come forward to use the service.”

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