Some Personal Memories of North Staffs Voice for Mental Health, by David Sweetsur

 

In the previous article on this site, Mark Conlon, a fellow member of the Pathways Group and friend, outlined the stark reality of the paucity of mental health provision both nationally and in our own locality of Stoke-on-Trent, a reality made all the more forbidding for us by the recent closure of the charity, North Staffs Voice for Mental Health. As some kind of salve to such disheartening news, I’d like to offer some, perhaps more happy and personal, memories of my involvement with this much valued, and now missed, local charity.

As Chief Officer Carole Stone states in the letter sent out to members informing them of the charity’s closure, it had its beginnings way back in 1992, a time when St. Edward’s, not the newer Harplands, was the main psychiatric hospital in Stoke-on-Trent. I have spoken to some who spent time at this old hospital, and although no one would ever actively want to spend time on a psychiatric ward, most appear to have at least a few fond memories of it. It was set amidst beautiful grounds and seems to have come from a time when the word “asylum”, with its connotations of sanctuary and protection, was entirely apposite. However, many were not satisfied with the way they were treated in such places, and it was out of this dissatisfaction that the charity grew. As Carole points out:

“The charity was formed in 1994 as North Staffs Users Group. Its origins began in a meeting in 1992 between a service user and interested worker who at the time worked for the National Schizophrenia Federation (NSF). The idea evolved of establishing a group that could exert some influence over service provision in the statutory sector. The main impetus of this came from the dissatisfaction that service users felt about the way that they were treated by the statutory providers of mental health services.

Since those humble beginnings, the group has developed over the past 25 years. Our current membership is over 1300 and just last year, we visited over 70 different venues across North Staffordshire and Stoke on Trent. However the aims of the charity have always remained the same – to ensure that the voice of people who access mental health services is heard.”

It wasn’t surprising then, that with my own experience of mental ill health, and a fairly chequered relationship with mental health services, that I soon became aware of, as it was then, NSUG. I remember having a conversation with one of the staff members in which I outlined my various disgruntlements. Although I was too ill at that time to fully engage with any action that might be taken to help me, it was one of the few encounters I’d had which took what I was saying seriously and was sympathetic to my situation. While it seemed to me that I was being treated as some kind of pariah by mental health services, NSUG offered a wholly more understanding approach.

When I got somewhat better, I was able to offer my time to the charity as a volunteer, helping with the production of their newsletter, sometimes writing articles for it, but mostly assisting with proof reading and editing. After going through appropriate training, I also tried my hand at working as one of their “user representatives”, volunteers who would visit various mental health venues around the city, asking service users for their input on the care they were receiving, and raising any identified issues with the Trust. Such experience helped in my recovery from ill health, giving a structure, meaning and purpose to my days and adding vital stability to my previously chaotic existence.

The Pathways Group also received much needed support from the charity. After mental health staff were withdrawn from our meetings, NS Voice stepped in, visiting us on a monthly basis and offering their help. Indeed, through their intervention, the group now has the support of a social care worker, who can be contacted should any issues arise, and they also aided in drafting a set of ground rules, used to outline to members old and new what the group is about and what is expected of them.

Perhaps most of all, though, one remembers the people, both staff and volunteers, who helped run the charity. There was hard work from many, but there was much fun and camaraderie too, such as when we all gathered for our annual Christmas party. Indeed, the people there became not just colleagues but friends, and Mark and I have become particularly close to Phil Leese, one of the founding voices behind the charity who, despite many physical as well as mental health problems, continues to work tirelessly for the improvement of the treatment of service users.

It was then with great sadness that I received the news that NS Voice would be closing. I had attended a consultation meeting in which various members of the charity told of the good work it was doing, and indeed how it had helped them on their own path to better mental health. This, though, was to be to no avail, and I was reminded of a similar process which patients had gone through when the Bennett Centre, the mental health resource unit where I used to be treated, was closed in 2012. One does tend to get the impression that once the consultation phase is entered, the writing, as it were, is already on the wall and closure, no matter how vociferously and cogently argued against, is the fated outcome.

After it was confirmed that the charity would close, I remember speaking with the Volunteer Coordinator who pointed out the absurdity of a world where the work of NS Voice was deemed unnecessary, noting that it could be run for an entire year for less than the weekly wage of your average Premiership League football player. Indeed, at one of the last meetings of the charity, I recall the conversation becoming more political than usual, with some mentioning the enormous gap between rich and poor, and how if only tax avoidance and evasion were curtailed, perhaps there would be more funds for organisations like NS Voice.

Indeed, the government’s stated aim of reducing acute admissions to hospital by providing more community care and encouraging the third sector was flatly contradicted by the decision to close the charity. People who have the misfortune to experience mental ill health in Stoke-on-Trent are now then facing not only reduced provision in the statutory sector, but also in these other vital areas which often serve to keep people well and out of hospital. We also heard that another third sector service, Echo, which helps people who self-harm, was having its funding dramatically reduced, while there were further cuts to alcohol and drug services.

And so it was that as the charity officially closed its doors for the last time on 30th December 2017, we were all left with the feeling of a somewhat needless loss. The odd tear was shed by people who had been involved with NS Voice for a long time, and who would come to miss not only its support but the friends they had made. But there was also hope for the future. Perhaps we might form a new group? Perhaps we might, as the founders of NS Voice did all those years ago, formulate an abiding resolution to make things better, to seek change, to create something good out of something so apparently bad.

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At Year’s End, a Snapshot of the UK’s Mental Health Debacle

The Dudson Centre, erstwhile base of operations for NS Voice

 

Earlier this month, North Staffs Voice for Mental Health, a charitable association in existence since the distant era of John Major’s government, was forced to shut down. Funding for its activities, the bulk of which was derived from local Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs), had been withdrawn over the course of the summer, and a subsequent scramble for alternative sources of income proved unavailing. Eight jobs have been “lost” – to use the limp euphemism customarily attached to such calamities, though the active verb “destroyed” more candidly portrays the situation – and offices have closed in Hanley’s Dudson Centre and at the area’s chief psychiatric facility, Harplands Hospital.  Longstanding campaigns of educational outreach have come to a premature halt, training programmes and vital advice sessions terminated, and psychiatric patients left without the skilled advocacy in which the organization excelled. Volunteers have been deprived of an outlet for their altruistic impulses, exposing Cameronian preachments about the “Big Society” as the windiest of rhetoric, while a quarterly newsletter sent to more than a thousand NS Voice members ceased publication following a final issue in October.

Carole Stone, ex-CEO of NS Voice, has stated that its disappearance could hardly have occurred at a more inexpedient juncture, coming as it does in the midst of deep cuts imposed on services across the board. Given the damaging repercussions closure will entail, the innocent bystander would be forgiven for thinking that a great deal of money must have hinged upon the decision. That, however, is not the case: running costs amounted to a decidedly modest £170,000, or less than the price of the average UK home now that neoliberal chicanery is left with nothing but the tumefaction of housing bubbles as a means to expand the economy. Evidently that sum is significant in the minds of the bean counters appointed to preside over such matters, a delegation of whom met with representatives of NS Voice in July to pay lip service to the latter’s entreaties for a stay of execution. It must be assumed that the smartly efficient actuaries were unmoved by the stories they heard concerning the crucial role the charity has played in the lives of Stoke-on-Trent residents; more surprisingly, taking into consideration the ardour generally aroused in their profession by “rebranding” and related image-based shenanigans, they remained unimpressed too that the appellation NS Voice is a recent substitute for the organization’s former name of NSUG, or North Staffs Users Group.

All of this, upsetting as it is, represents a mere microcosm of the nationwide imperilment and eradication of mental health services. In the general election unexpectedly held in June, the Conservatives, under the pious leadership of vicar’s daughter Theresa May, stumbled to a Pyrrhic victory over Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party – thereby bolstering the view previously expressed in this blog that Corbyn, his considerable virtues notwithstanding, would founder on the electoral rock of Brexit equivocation – and since then have continued to grind the vulnerable beneath the hobnailed boot of austerity. In the domain of socialized health care, the method employed has been the classic Chomskyan formula of instigating chaos and dissatisfaction via defunding, with privatization set to ride to the rescue as purportedly superior replacement. The cruel catch with regard to psychiatric services is that few corporations are clamouring to take them on, meaning that in a privatized scheme the poor are unlikely to benefit from anything more than nominal treatment. Any lingering trace of shame has vanished from Conservative propaganda, and consequently May and her ghoulish Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt loudly proclaim the exact opposite, namely that under Tory governance psychological and physical complaints bask in an unprecedented “parity of esteem” whereby each is in receipt of generous amounts of cash.

The facts are altogether at odds with such absurd sophistry. Paul Mason, BBC journalist turned Corbynite, has quipped that the Tories’ mantra of “strong and stable” would switch to “weird and nasty” in a world where thumbnail delineations were reflective of the truth. The nastiness is conspicuous in policies that function inescapably to ramp up the incidence of mental illness, pursued conjointly with measures designed to eviscerate state aid for those affected. Stagnant wages, precarious employment, epidemic homelessness and the “sanctioning” – that is to say, theft – of social security payments comprise the fertile soil in which psychological malady is sure to germinate. Meanwhile, there has been a 12% reduction since 2010 in the number of psychiatric nursing staff, and freedom of information requests have divulged the disturbing reality that a majority of CCGs are engaged in curtailing mental health expenditure. In November 2017, twelve prominent mental health charities wrote jointly to the government to warn that patients are “locked out” of a beleaguered and under-resourced system. Their pleas for increased revenue, issuing as they did from that currently despised segment of the populace, accredited experts, drew the risible response that an extra £1 billion would be invested in the problem by 2021, a total roughly equivalent to one fiftieth of the annual defence budget.

Aneurin Bevan, after creating the institution in 1948, predicted that the National Health Service would endure as long as people were willing to fight for it. The British ruling class, the globe’s most tenacious fraternity of capitalists, recognizes the accuracy of his observation; while striving to foster as much reactionary sentiment as it can through attacks on designated enemies – a tactic which of late has not stopped short of defaming the hitherto sacrosanct vocations of doctor and nurse – in large part it relies on apathy and political fatalism to ease its goal of dismantling the NHS and other surviving vestiges of the Bevanite welfare state. It’s to the enormous credit of those experiencing mental illness that, while coping with the formidable challenges posed by everyday life, a substantial body of them have battled against the lure of passivity through involvement in such campaigning groups as 38 Degrees and Disabled People Against Cuts. Tragically, unless activism of that kind develops critical mass, their future appears bleak.

By way of conclusion, the present author, Mark Conlon, is obliged once again to apologize for the dearth of articles published here over the past year, even if technically the meagre complement of four fulfils the promise I made twelve months ago to accelerate output from the level reached in 2016. At a time when the UK is transitioning from social democracy to Dickensian workhouse, Europe is beset by ethnonationalist barbarism, and a bellicose ignoramus in the White House jeopardises the very existence of the human species, the reader perhaps will sympathize with my reluctance to compose an incessant chronicle of gloom. Our group wishes visitors to this site the best for 2018, when one hopes passionately to see the sort of progressive change that would compel the most sternly Salingeresque of writers, this one included, to return reinvigorated to their keyboards.