We aren’t a political organisation here at Orb. Our only agenda is to support vulnerable people. But recently we’ve started to feel more than a little vulnerable ourselves. So we’re compelled to speak out about how tough things are getting for us here in the voluntary sector.

There’s been a steady erosion of mental health support services here in Harrogate over the last few years. Erosion that’s so gradual it seems like no one person or organisation is to blame. Of the two statutory mental health day care centres here in our own community one has closed and the other is due for closure. And changes to care programmes mean there are less staff to coordinate services.

All this is happening at a time when more pressure is being placed on individuals with severe and enduring mental health problems to come off benefits and get back into employment. And it’s fallen on voluntary services like Orb to plug the gap left behind, to give vulnerable people safe and supportive places to visit when they need help.

To put it simply, there’s too much strain on the few mental health support services left behind. But here’s the catch: for all that extra strain and expectation, there’s no readily accessible funding from local authorities to support us.

In it alone

Mick leans over a drill

Mick hard at work

Let’s take a step back for a moment and look at why mental health day services are so important from a user’s perspective. Mick our gardener has first-hand experience:

It helped me enormously. You knew you weren’t in it alone. You get out of the house. Just to see people. They’d know when you want leaving alone or to chat. You’d get a level of care from other service users. Everyone around you was always aware of how other people felt.

But compare that with his more recent experiences of mental health support services which favour one-to-one home visits:

Now you get an hour a week if you’re lucky. If you’re depressed that’s no good. It doesn’t work like that. The bad times are always at night.

Mick went to the now extinct Hawthorn day unit. Open during the day, vulnerable people could visit when they needed help and mix with other people who had similar problems.

Getting out, socialising, meeting other people – that’s what helps. You need some sort of place where you can go, drop-in, with other people. And it needs to be backed up with mental health support staff.

The one that got away

Mark

Mark

Mick feels positive about the benefits of these now dwindling mental health day services. With a supportive net of clinicians and mental health specialists, they help catch people before they fall.

But that’s the ideal. And one we’re getting further away from. When you take away that net, people slip through.

And with looming government budget cuts things are only set to get worse. Nevertheless, when day care services like the Hawthorn Centre drop the ball, voluntary organisations like Orb are expected to pick it up. As our founder Mark puts it:

The voluntary sector is expected to provide more but is paid less. Or nothing at all.

To fill the funding gap, here at Orb we spend significant amounts of our time filling in applications and submitting bids for charitable grants. Grants we might never even be awarded despite all our best efforts. That’s time-consuming. Time that could be better spent supporting our members and making our service even better.

Tough times

We know we’re not alone. Everyone’s set to have a hard time over the next few years. But with our funding already squeezed for 2010 and reduced for 2011 (or even pulled) it’s looking bleak. Plus we already support 20% more vulnerable people than we’re currently funded to.

Sure, you could ask why don’t you just support less people? Well, if we cast aside our principles and go against everything Orb stands for, we could. In Mark’s words:

If people are motivated enough to turn up at Orb and ask for our help, we can’t turn them away. They want to use our facilities and we want to support them.

But the reality is Orb can’t fully replace traditional mental health day care services, like those Mick experienced. Services with a safety net of clinicians and mental health specialists on-site, ready to step in. It seems that model of care is no longer in fashion and has almost disappeared. We need a new one or a compromise at the very least.

Hands up

We don’t have the solution. We just know that things aren’t working the way they are right now. They need to improve. Here’s what we’re thinking:

  1. We’d like our opinions and experience taken into account. Decision makers aren’t talking to voluntary sector organisations like Orb enough. But we’re bearing the brunt of the cuts. We need local authorities to talk to us more.
  2. We need to be involved in vulnerable people’s care plans. See the bigger picture. So we can help use what little money there is more efficiently. Again, we could share that knowledge simply through talking.
  3. Most importantly. However care is offered, vulnerable people need social and community support to get better. Understanding, compassionate and like-minded people around them. With the cushion of mental health support specialists that was once found at day care centres. Somewhere they can talk.

On that third point – perhaps there could be some sort of compromise? Between social and community organisations like Orb but with mental health support specialists who are seconded or visit more frequently.

The solution lies in talking

To help fix this we need discussion. A place where decision makers from local authorities and voluntary sector organisations and vulnerable people come together. To talk. Together we can decide how best to sort this problem out. Because we’re all in this together.

Mick put it best in his thoughtful reflections:

What you really need is to be interacting with other people. Talking. It makes things better.

Whichever piece of the mental health support service jigsaw you are, the solution for this problem is to talk. But right now, it just isn’t happening.

This blog article was written by Chris Kenworthy: copywriter and photographer