Triumphing over mental health problems

TODAY is World Health Day and with growing numbers of people suffering from mental illness, the significance of this issue has not gone unnoticed in our region.

TODAY is World Health Day and with growing numbers of people suffering from mental illness, the significance of this issue has not gone unnoticed in our region. JULIA SURMAN reports on how three Suffolk women's lives have been changed by two organisations, which have formed a new partnership.

ONE day your life a familiar routine full of normality and familiarity, then all of a sudden an incident - or perhaps a series of incidents - takes place sinking you gradually into the depths of darkness and despair.

That is how mental illness strikes, and that is what happened to Lyn. Her world changed after her husband died and both her sons left home to go to university, and it was those changes in her life which caused her to have a breakdown, self harm and attempt suicide.

Thanks to attending The Willows in Ipswich, a resource centre for people with disabilitites, provided by East Suffolk Mind, Lyn has managed to turn her life around.

She now works as a full time volunteer cook at the centre. As she bustles about the kitchen and dining room, and she looks and feels great.

Lyn's story is one example of the difference that mental health organisations can make to people's lives. The Willows is one of four resource centres provided by The Suffolk Mind Partnership. The centres offer assistance and group activities for up to 30 people a day, each person is provided with a care plan to identify their needs and this is then reviewed every three to six months to ensure that the individual is benefiting from the programs on offer.

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In May East Suffolk Mind collaborated with West Suffolk Mind to form The Suffolk Mind Partnership. The partnership provides help including anxiety management, recovery activities, counselling, as well as respite care for those who care for the mentally ill.

Bridget Berry of The Willows, said: “Resource centres are a safe environment for people to be themselves, people can move on with nurturing.”

She introduces Susan, another woman whose life has dramatically improved as a result of the support offered by the Willows.

Susan is an intelligent, artistic 59-year-old whose problems began more than 30 years ago after the birth of her first daughter. She was not recognised as suffering from post natal depression at the time and as a consequence her mental health deteriorated. She became a victim of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and manic depression, with the result that her condition became so bad that she was even unable to look in the mirror.

She spent years going in and out of hospital, relying on appointments with her GP three or four times a week - Susan was quite simply desperate. The Willows stepped in, and it was as a result of the support and compassion offered that she finally began to get her life back on track.

As well as giving her advice and information, the centre also offered her respite from caring for her son who has Aspergers Syndrome. Susan took the opportunity to enjoy a number of activities and gave her the confidence to start promoting her artwork. Her self esteem returned, and for the past eight years she has been able to lead a normal life.

Rachel, aged 39, is another example of how circumstances can suddenly turn against you. She was being bullied in her workplace which led to her having a breakdown.

She began attending anxiety management sessions at The Willows, and with the help and advice of staff at the centre she felt able to leave her job. The centre helped Rachel find a new job as a carer. She is now happy and confident and she still enjoys attending the Willows on a social basis.

These resource centres offer essential help and guidance and take pressure of the medical services.

Sue Jay, area manager of West Suffolk Mind said: “One in four people experience some form of mental ill health at some time in their lives. Being able to obtain the right kind of help quickly can make a big difference to their recovery time.”

Names have not been published in full, to respect the interviewees' wishes.

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A new website launches today for people seeking information on matters of mental health.

www.suffolkmind.org.uk will provide information on how to access mental health services in our region such as those offered by centres like The Willows.

World Mental Health Day has been celebrated annually on October 10 since 1992. Every year a different theme is set by the World Federation for World Mental Health Day - the theme for 2007 is 'Mental health in a changing world: the impact of culture and diversity'.

The scale of mental health problems

· Around 300 people out of 1,000 will experience mental health problems every year in Britain.

· 230 of these will visit a GP.

· 102 of these will be diagnosed as having a mental health problem.

· 24 of these will be referred to a specialist psychiatric service.

· Six will become inpatients in psychiatric hospitals.

An author's 40-year career working with people with mental health problems in Ipswich has provided the foundation for a book showing that people, whatever their diagnosis, can learn to manage their symptoms and live well.

In writing 'Recovery - a guide', mental health practitioner Pete Watkins drew on his own personal and professional experiences as well as those of the Ipswich and East Suffolk Outreach team set up by Suffolk Mental Health Partnership NHS Trust.

Mr Watkins describes how a diagnosis of a mental illness could leave people feeling powerless and dependent, leading to feelings of despondency and hopelessness.

“It's a recipe for a life of disability,” he said. “But recovery is possible for everyone once they begin taking back control of their lives from recurrent symptoms that threaten to overwhelm them and from mental health services that offer only prescriptive care. Mental health services work best when they seek a real partnership with those people using them.

“Time and again people have told me that the moment they feel more in charge of their lives is the time when hope and confidence return and recovery begins.”

Illustrating his work with a number of Ipswich-based case studies, Mr Watkins argues that medication or psychological therapies should not be seen as universal remedies. He shows it is possible to regain a feeling of wellbeing with the help of a variety of catalysts, such as through having a job, volunteering, achieving educational goals, through creativity or reconnecting with nature.

“It took me a long time to jettison the notion that I was some kind of expert on other people's lives - I have enough difficulty managing my own!” said Mr Watkins. “Now I prefer to say to people: 'I don't know what it is that makes your life hardly bearable, and I don't know what it would take to make your life better, but I am willing to commit myself to working with you to find out.'”

Mr Watkins describes the role of the mental health practitioner as being a 'compassionate ally' in people's journeys towards good mental health - the direction of Suffolk Mental Health Partnership NHS Trust's service is closely aligned to creating recovery relationships and promoting social conditions in which people can move on with their lives.

'Recovery - a guide' is Mr Watkins' second book - the first, 'The art of compassionate care', is currently in its second edition. Although aimed at mental health practitioners, both were written to also appeal to non-professionals.

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