Caring for those who suffer from mental illness. October 20th 2013

Tooting Bec Mental Hospital was demolished almost 20 years ago. Some of you will no doubt remember it. I do- even though I did not step inside it after 1990! Long Corridors and walk-ways. The Industrial Therapy Unit, where people undertook fairly simple but painstaking manual work. Clusters of men and women outside smoking, many prepared to ‘bum’ a fag from any passer- by. Many grey, crumpled faces with anxious eyes.

Some of those faces I got to know quite well over the years, because I was involved in the project of re-settling men from the hospital in Brixton and Stockwell in shared, supportive housing, as the hospital was coming to its end.

I was head-hunted by a  charity for a number of specific reasons. All the rest of the staff were women, so they wanted some gender balance.

They were also fairly posh, so they were looking for a staff member who was a little less well bred.

They were looking for someone who could arrange and participate in sport too.

  And they also had ‘ issues’ about food. By that I mean that they were dealing with men, who had either spent decades in institutions like Tooting Bec Hospital, or living as tramps, and whose background was usually working class, and were extremely aware that their preference for such food –stuffs as quiche and houmous created a bit of a culture clash with men who were more at home in  a world of beer, fags and meat-pies .

One of my first major jobs was to write a recipe book that our residents and staff could work with together to create healthy but non- alienating dishes.

I was also there to help generate some male camaraderie  and bonding by being able to endure the entire Great Escape on Christmas afternoons and respond with some degree of comprehension to male banter, and a preoccupation with football.

These recollections were brought about by the news on Wednesday about the national shortage of emergency hospital beds for people suffering from mental illness. The same problem existed way back in the late 1980’s. I can remember endless hours spent with various psychotic residents in the waiting room of the local hospital trying to convince the staff that they really did need to be admitted; in the face of the psychiatrist’s fear that if they surrendered one precious bed to me one might not be available if an even more needy person arrived.

These big policy issues though, however troubling, are not something we can probably do much about. But that does not mean that we are powerless to do anything.

When we discussed the notion of getting involved with West London Church’s Homeless concern, and opening up the church one night a week for homeless people during the winter, there was overwhelming support for the idea.

 I have only heard, this very week, that that will not be going ahead. Due to funding pressures the charity has decided not to expand into new areas, but make more space available at existing venues.

 They still would like our help. One of the Saturday night venues is fairly local, in Fulham, and only got going last year, so may- but that is only a may- turn to us for volunteer help, and we could help with fund-raising in the meantime- I have one suitable event lined up in December.

But while we are waiting to see what the future holds re that initiative you could help by transferring your enthusiasm to a different one.

It is one that is profoundly related to the night shelter project, and has been discussed within the church here for years. Some of you will remember that I have been in discussions with a couple of confusingly named organisations – the Community Empowerment Network and the Co-Production Practitioners Network. Let me translate that into English?

The modern extension of the idea that rather than being hidden away out of sight in asylums people with severe mental problems should be part of a genuinely caring community, is the one that even those with less serious conditions benefit if they find support where they are- in their own settings- in their neighbourhoods, in the their churches and in their mosques. So talking therapies are now being organised locally, in safer settings than hospital sites and clinics.

The NTA who meet here in the afternoon are a very small branch of a Pentecostal Church which is increasingly having a big impact on Christian life nationwide, and at their church , significantly perhaps, in Tooting,they have been, with others, pioneers of this new movement.

What is asked of churches  such as ours is quite simple. We provide a space for counsellors to meet with their clients, but also provide subtle and welcoming hospitality.

 So the scheme presupposes that whenever any counselling is happening we have people on the premises, hence all the stuff about Community Empowerment and Co-production. It is not about space being hired out on the cheap to the NHS , but about us providing a safe space and a welcome to people- who could indeed be any of us, or members of our families- so common is mental illness.

The project floundered in the past because of various misunderstandings about the reason for church members being required to be present and problems of timing and venue- a fixation with using the Upper Room for example. Now, thanks to Jenny and Claire and their office re-organisation programme we have another potential counselling space, within the church itself.

I have people who are already involved in the project ,ready and waiting, to come and talk to us about their experiences. I myself have a sense of urgency because we have been stalling the organisers for so long. What would be helpful at this stage to know if anyone is interested in giving up some time, which will probably be on a week day, simply to be about and able to make a cup of tea if needed.

 Joy and I are already committed and will make sure that we can cover some of the time involved- all conversations so far have indicated that we are talking about 4 hours maximum each week. So we probably will need about 10 volunteers in total.

Any of you who were here 2 weeks ago to hear Michael Barnes’ challenging talk about Christian Spirituality, will have heard him make the point that Christian Spirituality is deeply rooted in Jewish insights about God. Particularly the prophetic idea that God’s passionate concern for his people includes a yearning for justice. We have seen this year how that spills over forcefully into Luke’s Gospel, with all those great parables where God sets a pattern for us, by seeking out the lost, risking everything to help those who have fallen into the ditch, offering a welcome home.

The only time I can remember being rebuked by Rowan Williams was on an occasion when I was helping him with the washing up. I must have been holding a cup in my hand because I was led to  disparagingly refer to a remark by a spiritual writer , which was something like’ making a cup of tea well is the perfect spiritual act’. I was immediately on the end of a gentle/fierce glance.

I understand better now how idiotic I was. Whether someone is homeless or suffering from mental illness, or like the lady who told me on Monday that coming to the Monday Club and being rescued for a couple of hours from her isolation is the high-light of her week, company and kindness are potentially transforming. 

Why otherwise do we have a communion at the heart of our life together as Christians?






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