September 23, 2008

My first campaign was to do with a rehabilitation training centre called Wiseworks in Harrow near where I live. I myself spent one and a half years there when I was recovering. I had become unwell and there was not a single penny coming in. I was used to being in a business world and being very successful, then all of a sudden I had no income, it was devastating. The first week I went to rehabilitation training, I was offered three pounds at the end of the week for my work. Those three pounds for me meant three thousand pounds - it was just that feeling that I was taking something home. Also, there is big stigma on mental health in my community so I was nervous about telling people exactly what I did and why. But every time somebody in my community asked me what I did, I would just tell them “I go to Wiseworks", but I didn't have to tell them what Wiseworks is.

There were six areas to the training - office skills, woodwork, gardening, horticulture, printing, and desktop publishing. I picked up a lot of skills there; being at Wiseworks gave me the opportunity to build them up in my own time. I met other people during coffee time and we got a lot of support from each other. I have very fond memories of Wiseworks, it completely transformed my life. It is because of them that I changed my profession and got interested in mental health, wanting to give something back to the community. They empowered me to prepare my CV, I got placements via them with the local council and eventually I moved on to my role with local Mind - I took on a small position there and worked my way up.

We received a leaflet saying Wiseworks was closing - a decision had been made by the Labour party and we hadn't known. They had financial difficulties and they had to pick on somebody to adjust their books - mental health services are often the first victims in these cases. As soon as we knew, the whole town was worried, saying “how can they just close a centre which took so many years to develop?"

So in a joint venture with the Harrow User Group I got all of the members together and encouraged them to sign a petition. We put it in different places and different people - staff, carers, services users, professors - signed it. We collected many signatures - about 600.

We put pressure on the local council to give us a statement in public. There was a public meeting at Wiseworks and I managed to bring everybody together to come along. An officer from the council came about one hour late, which was frustrating, and said the meeting was only for those service users who were currently using Wiseworks - of course I was not using the service at the time. So effectively, we were refused entry. But it's a decision that affects everybody, and carers are affected as equally as service users, and those who have already moved out as well. Everybody reacted badly and said “we are not moving" until eventually she gave up and let us in. She went on to say that the council wanted to close Wiseworks and move everybody into mainstream services - and that for her was inclusion. Inclusion in her mind was different from my idea of inclusion, because those who go to mainstream colleges find it very difficult. People need to recover with each other in a safe area where everybody is undergoing similar problems and move on when it is their choice. They wanted to see a turnover of lots of people and perhaps Wiseworks was not showing that because recovery is a slow process. They thought it was one of these very old fashioned institutions - it wasn't as far as I'm concerned!

Because of my own personal experience, I was passionate about fighting the decision. I could not stand people taking advantage of a vulnerable group. Different voluntary groups and service users got together. We had a big forum of about 120 people where three models of practice were proposed for Wiseworks. A vote was taken and all favoured a working model which was between the current Wiseworks model and a model proposed by the local Mind. We put it forward to the local statutory organisation because they own the building. We then approached service users whose family were in the legal field to see if they could help. Their relatives came forward and said the council had failed to carry out an impact assessment and had not had a proper consultation process. An appeal was made to look at the decision through our scrutiny - to hold what's called a 'call in' meeting. A meeting took place to scrutinise their decision. We put forward three or four points and on one particular point - we won! Wiseworks has remained open and the council are now changing their working practice. Had we not opposed their decision they would have simply sold it to a developer and got the money.

I was able to help quash the decision using different skills. I was able to get all the service users together because I'd already formed a network through Open Up. I also used some of the things which I had learned through Open Up training; how to challenge discrimination, how to pull all your allies together. I spread the word through email and tried to inform myself and others about what the legal procedures are so I would know how to challenge the council with specialist knowledge.

Share your story

Too many people are made to feel ashamed. By sharing your story, you can help spread knowledge and perspective about mental illness that could change the way people think about it.