Cutback victims: where are they now?

SIX months ago a host of mental health support groups and clubs were axed in east Suffolk, leaving hundreds of patients fearing the future. SARAH GILLETT found out what happened next for the people affected.

SIX months ago a host of mental health support groups and clubs were axed in east Suffolk, leaving hundreds of patients fearing the future. SARAH GILLETT found out what happened next for the people affected.

HEARTS ached when the doors of several Suffolk services for mental health patients closed earlier this year - and minds started to wonder 'what now?'

People had come to depend on the support of places like Bridge House, The Pines and The Hollies in Ipswich and Old Fox House in Stowmarket.

Whether it was for a day of activity and social interaction, or just a welcoming smile, these services were a valued thread in their lives. When that thread was suddenly cut, as a result of the ever tightening budget facing today's NHS, were they simply cast adrift?

We caught up with the people concerned, to see what happened in their lives.

Robert Nesbitt, spokesman for the Suffolk Mental Health Partnership Trust, said: “2005 was a very difficult year, with the trust having to make some tough decisions about closing some services in order to balance it books.

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“However, we also took the opportunity to find new ways of approaching employment and day services, and in partnership with Suffolk County Council, it was possible to fund the voluntary organisation Meridian to set up an innovative employment project which has been very well received.

“Other former clubhouse service users are finding East Suffolk Mind's services very helpful.

“It hasn't been possible to meet everyone's needs, but on the whole, we're pleased with the way these difficult changes were implemented."

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Angela Wright - a former user of Bridge House in Ipswich:

Angela has been battling depression for more than ten years and Bridge House played a vital part in her recovery.

The 33-year-old of Trefoil Close, Ipswich, was devastated when the Suffolk Mental Health Partnership Trust (SMHPT) announced they were going to close it, and was instrumental in campaigning to try to save it.

She said: “Bridge House empowered people, built a community and cared for them. Over the years everybody gave me so much and expected so little.

“There was always a choice - they asked 'would you like to type up an article, write a letter or agenda, cook or clean or show people round? I was invited to be an equal in making a decision on policies, or in-house business. I think I am a better person for all the things I've chosen to do, and what Bridge House enabled me to do.”

Since the centre closed, Angela has had a hectic time but is making positive steps towards fulfilling her ambitions. She has just started the second year of a fine art degree at Suffolk College, is searching for a job and is also hoping to start a volunteer placement with mental health charity The Richmond Fellowship soon.

Yet Angela admits it has been very difficult at times. She said: “I have been searching for a job for almost a year and it's started to get me down.

“I've had to go to my GP and ask him to increase my medication slightly because it's started to get to me. You can't get a job unless you've got experience and it's really hard to get a foot in the door anywhere.

“I've really missed Bridge House in the last couple of months, because I used to just be able to drop in and know that there would always be a friendly face there.”

Members of Bridge House now meet once a week at East Suffolk Mind's Rosemary Lane centre.

Angela said: “There's not as much for people to do. It's more a case of sitting around and having a cup of tea, because there aren't the activities that there were for people in the clubhouse environment.

“It's nice to catch up with everyone but it's not the same.

“Everyone's still there for each other, I think that's the one thing that's keeping everyone going because it feels like we've been abandoned by the trust really.”

Simon Dow - a former user of The Pines occupational therapy centre in Ipswich:

Simon's first experience of The Pines came five years ago after a spell in St Clement's Hospital.

He said: “I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and it had got so bad at that stage that I needed to be hospitalised.

“I started going to The Pines as an inpatient and continued going once I had been discharged.

“Most of the work I did there involved art and craft - painting, drawing and making things out of wood.

“I'm really interested in art, and going there every Wednesday was a great building block back in to a 'normal' life.”

When the centre was closed at the end of April, Simon, like many other users, was not happy to sit back and see it disappear and decided to do something about it.

Together, the majority of The Pines' users set up an alternative, and Kone East was born.

The group meet every week at the Murrayside Youth and Community Centre in Nacton Road, to replicate the activities they would have enjoyed at The Pines.

Simon, 30, of Mill Lane, Felixstowe, said: “We try to do the same kinds of things but it's very limited because we just don't have the resources that we had at The Pines.

“We don't have the same art materials and we don't have an experienced tutor like we used to.”

The group has been supported by the East Suffolk Advocacy Network, an independent organisation based at St Clement's, which provided advice and information to enable them to set up on their own.

Simon said: “They have been great, but the trust hasn't been as helpful. When they shut The Pines we had nobody from the trust come down and say 'this is where you can go now' and 'this is what you can do instead'.

“Having to find a place and keep us together and organise meetings is added pressure that we don't need but we've had to do it. There are several people who have fallen by the wayside.

“I would definitely say we are in a worse situation. We are having to do all the work of organising where we are going to meet and what we are going to do. We don't have the support for people that we used to have at The Pines.

“We are constantly thinking 'where's our safety net?'.

“It feels like we were climbing up and a ladder and they knocked it down when we were halfway up, but he important thing is that we've kept together.”

Linda Yaxley and Emma Harmer-Collins, former users of Old Fox House in Stowmarket:

Both Linda and Emma had been regular users of the Old Fox House for more than ten years, and were devastated when they found out it was going to close.

The pair who have become the best of friends since meeting at the centre, took part in several demonstrations to try to halt the cuts but to no avail.

However, the future was not as bleak as they feared, as they began to attend East Suffolk Mind's Stowmarket centre instead and say they haven't looked back.

Linda, who suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, agoraphobia and depression, said: “I started coming here before Old Fox House closed for good as I did not want to be left with nothing at all.

“We both have community psychiatric nurses (CPNs), but neither of us has a dedicated care plan so it was up to us to decide what we wanted to do.

“Old Fox House helped us a lot but since I have been here I have achieved so much in a relatively short space of time.

“I've become a volunteer and a trustee for East Suffolk Mind and I just seem to get on so much better here.”

The Stowmarket centre is a bright and welcoming place, where mental health patients can call in at any time and know they will find a friendly face.

Emma, 36, from Mendlesham, suffers from depression but said the centre has already helped her condition hugely: “As soon as we walked in the door we got a really warm welcome from everybody.”

Linda, 56, agreed: “We have days where the centre is run by the users, not staff or management and it's really nice to feel that people have that trust in you and see you as a 'normal' human being.

“It gives you real confidence in yourself.”

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