When Anne Smith’s son, James, a paranoid schizophrenic, was sent to Broadmoor, she fell apart. “I felt so guilty, like I could no longer get joy from anything that James couldn’t get joy from,” she says.
Once the depression took hold, Smith, 53, had to give up her job on the till at M&S.
Then she tried to kill herself and ended up on a mental ward. On leaving hospital, she went for a job interview and cried the whole way through: “When you’re ill it’s hard to remember the positive things you’ve achieved or what you can do,” she says.
Smith is one of around 80,000 people who leave work each year due to ill health, according to recent figures from the Department for Work and Pensions.
Now she is putting her life back together thanks to one of a new breed of ‘recovery houses’, which help people integrate back into the community. These partially state-funded clinics were strongly recommended in the Schizophrenia Commission, published earlier this month.
Suffolk House opened its doors last year, as the first ever home-from-home for people who aren’t so sick that they should be in a psychiatric hospital but who need specialist support in order to get back on their feet.
Exactly the kind of people who find themselves falling through gaps in the system and unable to cope: “I don’t want to be dependent on anyone, but it is so daunting coming out of hospital, a real shock,” Smith says. “Coming here gives you what you need to make the transition back into the real world.”
It has proved a success, with a 4% relapse rate among the 300 people who have so far stayed both here and at two sister units across London. There are others in Royal Leamington spa, Grimsby, Rotherham, with one opening in Sheffield later this year, and bidding for another in the South East imminent.
“The general problem with mental health is people not knowing where to go in a crisis,” explains Jane Harris from Rethink mental health charity.
These centres, she says, provide around-the-clock care, creating a secure environment where people can sort themselves out. Suffolk House has space for 12 residents, each with their own bedroom and use of a communal living room and kitchen, one of whom is in his mid-twenties and was living at Suffolk house while volunteering at the Olympics.
Coming back here every night, he says, gave him the security to step back into the system.
The cost of a contract for 31 beds across the three houses in London over a five-year period is £1.2m, says Laurie Armantrading who manage these centres: “Compare that to the £600-700,000 per person it costs to stay one night on a hospital ward,” he says.
Not to mention the long-term financial benefits of getting people back into work. “We measure recovery in terms of social not just clinical recovery: how in control people feel, what people’s relationships are like, their employment”.
“The staff here are completely different,” Smith says. “They give you the time, and they seem to have a way of talking so that you end up talking to them about things you may not have intended to.” When she couldn’t sleep at night, she says, she would knock on one of the staff’s door and they would be there with a ready smile. “That’s what you need,” she says.
Every day at Suffolk House, there are various drop-in classes and support groups, with staff on hand to gently re-teach basic life skills, such as doing a weekly shop or making lunch.
“In the old days,” says Maria Gandara of rethink mental health charity, “people didn’t see people integrating back into society: you were mentally ill or you were well. These recovery houses prove you can integrate back very well indeed.”
“Now I can’t wait to get another job,” Says Smith who left Suffolk House last month. “They’ve given me my life back,” Smith says. “Before I came here I didn’t want a life.”