Staff, volunteers and supporters of Shaftesbury’s Hope charity have met to celebrate the opening of a ‘community front room’ at their Longmead HQ. It offers a safe place where anyone aged 18 and over can receive face-to-face support and advice if they are experiencing a mental health crisis.
“I feel really proud of all of the people who put a lot of effort into this. I hope it will be successful. I’m sure it will be from the numbers who have already attended,” said Eileen Crew. As Hope Founder and Manager, she’s helped drive this vision for a mental crisis drop-in space.
The three-year project has been funded by Dorset Healthcare, the NHS mental health service provider in the county. These services are being delivered at three sites all chosen because they are in rural places, isolated from main population centres where services are easier to access. It is a partnership between Bournemouth Churches Housing Association, Harmony in Bridport and Hope in Shaftesbury. “The hours, facilities, environment and the ethos are the same. This is on the back of the success of The Retreat in Bournemouth,” said Dorset Healthcare’s Business and Development Manager Stuart Lane.
Shaftesbury’s Mayor was wearing his ceremonial chains as he joined service users tucking into a lunchtime buffet laid out on a table at one end of the small, windowless front room on Wednesday. Cllr Tim Cook said he was pleased that Shaftesbury, along with Bridport and Wareham, have been chosen as rural bases for this new initiative.
“It’s somewhere people can feel safe and come to an environment where everybody is geared towards making them feel well again. It’s a resource that Shaftesbury can benefit from. The crisis support over evening and weekends has not been great, but people can now come here and don’t have to travel a distance They can meet people who are obviously supportive,” Tim said.
Vicky Cross is a senior practitioner at the Shaftesbury Community Front room. “My background initially was mental health and then I joined the Prison Service and worked with drug and alcohols,” Vicky said. “I moved here to manage this community front room.”
Every visitor’s crisis will, obviously, be different but I asked Vicky to share some of her experiences. “We have some people come in because they are really struggling in the evenings. They are lonely and they need somebody to support them because their mental health seems to deteriorate at that time. Other people are coming because they are thinking about taking their own life. They don’t feel that they can cope. We listen to them, support them and we try to refer them on to other agencies as well as giving them a safe place in which to talk and be heard.”
Vicky believes that the availability of the service outside regular office hours is important. “Definitely over the weekend and in the evenings, it does seem to have a big impact. We work from 3.15pm until 10.45pm on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” said Vicky.
Some people arriving at the Longmead-based service are in an agitated state and Vicky’s team work to reassure them. “When they become less stressed, they can talk to other peers in the main room and they can have a cup of tea. We play cards to try and distract them and help them think of other things. Then we make a plan for them, based on their strengths, to help them manage over the weekend or through the week.”
Vicky never knows what to expect. “It is difficult, but we are a good team,” she said. So far, the team has been able to cope with the demands for the service. “There’s myself here and a peer specialist. So far it has been okay. We normally only have two or three people in at the same time.”
Not all of the service users have been from the immediate area. “We’ve had people come up from Sherborne, Blandford and the local villages including Shaftesbury. Some walk, some drive. Others will come with a family member because they are distressed and the need that additional support. We’ve also had people arrive with the Police or the Ambulance Service.”
I asked Vicky how her team cope when they receive a distressed and vocal visitor, but another front room user needs a tranquil environment. “We are lucky that we have two rooms, the main open room and a smaller room by the front door, which allows us to sit with people who are really distressed in a safe environment, away from others,” Vicky replied.
Vicky and her team must ask their visitors to leave at the end of the session hours. “There’s only been one occasion where we have had somebody here until 11.10pm because they were quite distressed, and we needed to make sure that they were okay go home and that they were safe. Most people understand that we have opening hours. We have the option of sending them to The Retreat in Dorchester and Bournemouth.”
Dealing with these sometimes-intense situations does impact on Vicky. She says she can’t go to sleep immediately after her shift. “The reason we close at 10.45pm is so we can have a debrief between the staff who are here to make sure that everybody is okay before they leave. I normally go home, have a cup of tea and reflect on the evening, trying to process everything before I go to sleep,” Vicky said.
Vicky can rely on support from volunteers like Hannah, who assists with the drop-in service on Friday evenings and with a mindfulness colouring session on Sundays. “I wanted to help people, using my caring and sensitivity skills to find ways to deal with problems,” said Hannah, who has some experience within this field. “I’ve worked within mental health before. I represent Hope, sometimes at events. I’ve done youth work before and that has brought up challenges similar to the crisis drop in. That was with younger people but it’s the same sort of thing. They are going through something which is quite difficult.”
Working with people from different backgrounds and age groups doesn’t faze Hannah. “I’m here to greet them, to talk things through and perhaps play a game with them. I’m here to make them feel like they have some support,” she said.
The provision of rural mental health services comes down to money. There is cash committed to the community front rooms until 2021. Stuart says the NHS will gauge this project’s success by assessing whether it reduces the strain on hospitals. “We are looking for the community front rooms to reduce the number of people who need to be taken to A&E or places like that,” he said, adding that the Ambulance and Police Services will be consulted.
“There’s obviously an option to extend this post but we will review how and where we are in three years’ time,” said Stuart. “This is a new venture within Dorset, having three community front rooms. We will review progress on this over time and see how demand and capacity develops. At the moment it’s an unknown.”
But volunteer Hannah can already see that this Shaftesbury project is proving valuable. “It’s making a change with someone’s life, which is really important, I think, for the community,” she said.
And Vicky, who works with service users four days a week, understands how crucial face-to-face contact, especially during the hours of darkness, can be. “It’s giving people support where there hasn’t been any before, over the weekend and in the evenings. People who are leaving appear to be ‘in a better space’ than when they came in. We’re here to help them, to listen and to make plans with them,” Vicky said.