On the importance of ‘safe spaces’ for those of us with mental health challenges


Visiting the Lifeworks occupation protest in Cambridge – care in the community

‘Care in the community’ got a bit of a bad name in the media during the 1990s after a series of high-profile murders combined with inflammatory headlines. I remember at the time wondering why there was a policy of care in the community – why didn’t everyone who was even a slight risk locked up out of sight and out of mind? That seemed to be the media’s message to us. At the time I was completely ignorant of the symptoms of my own mental health issues. It almost seems appropriate that I’m writing this blogpost 24 hours after having taken a fairly strong tranquilliser pill to help give me a good night’s sleep after 2 sleepless nights in a row. (I didn’t wake up until about 3pm, got my dates mixed up and missed the Social Media Surgery – so another apology from me!)

Earlier on my friend Ceri took me along to the Lifeworks occupation (see here), with the responsible authorities on the receiving end of tough questions from Cambridgeshire County Councillors over their handling of it. We got a warm & friendly welcome from the occupiers, & for the first time in quite some time I felt the weight of … ‘stuff’ being lifted from my shoulders. (This happened just before I read and replied to the very important things in my previous blogpost).

What I learnt from the people there is that they are extremely clued up on the issues – and on how ‘the system’ does not work for us. They know far more about local public health than I do, which made me realise the importance not just of ‘communities of interest’ – in this case service users, but the links between the communities and wider societies.

High profile awareness campaigns not matching the picture on the ground

I blogged about this here. Over the years I’ve been treated for my mental health issues, there have been funding cuts after funding cuts. Nothing about any significant increases in resources, or about new treatments or facilities coming on stream. The best treatment I had from anywhere was from the local youth charity Centre33. In one sense I’m gutted that I’m too old to be a service user now, because they got lots right with me.

Something about the structure of our economy and society?

I guess I ‘burnt out’ in some respects. I couldn’t cope with the life of a long commute. I have no idea how others manage. This is where the experiment in Gothenburg, Sweden will be interesting – moving to a shorter working week with six hour days. What would that look like over here if we were able to combine it with people able to live much closer to their places of work, rather than having the high-rise office blocks supported by over-stretched public transport systems.

In terms of the worries associated with insecure employment and costs of living, Nyika Suttie – one of Puffles’ earliest followers, in her first column for The Guardian is spot on here. How can you plan for the long term future if you don’t know whether you’ll have a job at the end of your fixed term contract? Hence perhaps Hannah Fearn’s piece about a citizen’s income (see here). It’s something Ed Miliband tried to pick up in his speech recently talking lots about the lack of ‘middle income jobs’ (see the transcript here). As I’ve seen written elsewhere, technology (and how we use it) has led to the demise of more than a few of these jobs. The people that ran photograph processing shops and record/music shops are just a couple of examples.

As I said to the friendly people at Lifeworks, were it not for support from my family, I would be in a much worse place health-wise than I currently am. They told me how Lifeworks helped them manage their health, and the positive impact that the service has for them. Just as importantly, such services give us the chance to contribute to the wider community in a manner that’s meaningful to all of us – and that makes a real difference. When senior public service managers and ministers look at such services through the narrow lens of a spreadsheet, they inevitably overlook the wider benefits to society that financial models struggle to account for. As the people at Lifeworks told me, removing prevention and support services has a knock-on impact down the line with acute and emergency services.

Cutting community support services might help a short term balance sheet, but – and as the protest sign in the community room said – in the long term, it’s a false economy.



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