Agency seeks to tackle cycle of care and prison: Heather Mills reports on help in the community for mentally ill offenders

PETER BARNES'S arms bear the burn scars of the cigarette ends that he used to rid himself of tattoos. The effects of drink and misery anaesthetised the pain.

He is now in a special hostel in north London which is helping him deal with the drink and mental health problems that have blighted his life. In two weeks of treatment and care, he is already talking more positively about life and less about suicide.

But his route to the hostel has been a long one. At 12 he put himself into council care to escape beatings, rows and abuse at home. While in a children's home he started playing truant and offending - car crime, theft and glue- sniffing. It was a decline into a cycle of care, courts, prisons and living rough on the streets 'drinking and wasting my life' - through what has become known as a 'revolving door'.

It is in order to ensure that more people such as Peter stay out of jail and receive care in the community, that a new organisation was launched yesterday. The Revolving Doors Agency plans to break the cycle of homelessness, deteriorating mental health and imprisonment which denies mentally ill people essential health care.

Research indicates that up to one-third of the country's prison population of 42,800 suffer from psychiatric problems. Working with the police, the agency will help to identify the mentally ill, seek to expand court psychiatric schemes and try to find housing for homeless offenders with mental health problems. It will identify and form links with voluntary projects and social services to co- ordinate policy and care. While initially based in central London, the long-term aim is to go national.

Launching the agency, to be funded by ITV Telethon and other trusts, Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for Health, said: 'Homelessness can be a significant factor among people seen by schemes aiming to divert mentally disordered patients from the criminal justice system to health and social care . . . It is important that a range of services is available so that they are not remanded in custody solely because they have nowhere to live.'

She does not have to tell Peter. It was a remand into Brixton on a charge of criminal damage - breaking into a squat - that finally sent him over the top. Less than a year earlier, his brother Sean had killed himself while on remand in Hull prison. Peter was in danger of doing the same.

The next day a place was found for him at Wytham Hall, a registered charity in Paddington, west London, where he is now.

'It's pretty hard to accept that you need help from psychiatrists and doctors - you know, that you have mental problems,' he said.

'But when my brother committed suicide, he was talking to himself and laughing at weird things. Yet he wouldn't see a psychiatrist. That's the main reason I am determined to do for myself what he failed to do for himself.'

It was his brother's death, in fact, which led to Peter's own deterioration in mental health. 'I just started drinking anything I could get hold of to get it out of my head. My brother's death showed me how vulnerable I was . . . It made me paranoid. I started feeling suicidal.' Now in the hostel, he says: 'I've grown up a lot recently. I know I am only 22 but I feel like I'm 60. Maybe, hopefully one day I can get to like myself.' Those caring for Peter believe that he might. But, ironically, as their 16-bed hostel is being held up as a model of care in the community, a question mark hangs over its future because of lack of funding.