The concept of community care has had mixed reviews since its inception.
One school of thought has it that it has been little more than a budget-cutting device for those who hold the purse strings as wards were closed and former patients encouraged to begin new independent lives.
Others of course, have heralded this move, citing the many benefits that increased decision-making and autonomy can have.
But no matter how Dickensian some of the older psychiatric institutions might have been, one thing they had going for them was that the inmates usually enjoyed a sense of community, no matter how fragile that might have been.
And if you were up for talking and in need of a heart-to-heart, there was usually someone to listen, someone who was in the same position that you were, and who probably understood quite a lot about how you were feeling.
Even with support, independent living can be lonely and frightening at times.
Will your new neighbours accept you?
Will you be able to cope with the day-to-day details of life that someone else always handled on your behalf?
And will you be able to cope with the hundred and one decisions that living independently requires?
It is a difficult balance to achieve. And yet as the move for greater independence and autonomy has grown, some interesting new initiatives have been developed which allow people with mental health difficulties to become an integral part of their communities.
One such successful initiative is currently being run by West Cork’s Co Action, who have started a scheme known as Homelink where host families welcome someone with mental health issues or autism into their families.
It was as long ago as the 7th century AD that a town in Belgium had a similar idea as a result of the tragic events which led to a princess known as Dymphna becoming a martyr and the patron saint of mental illness. Her feast day is on May 15 (we have more about her in the piece at the bottom of the page).
Geel is in the province of Antwerp and Dymphna is also the town’s patron saint. Today Geel is justifiably famous for its de-institutionalisation of psychiatric care.
This practice is based on the positive effects of placement in host families, and provides an access to family life that might have otherwise been missing in someone’s life. It was only in the early 20th century that the concept was adopted more widely.
Today Geel is regarded as a centre of excellence.
These are, in essence, the values that Homelink is designed to deliver.
I spoke to Homelink co-ordinator and Co-Action social worker Emma O’Sullivan about how this innovative scheme is progressing.
*How long have you been up and running, Emma?
>>“We started the scheme in November 2011. It is promoted by the HSE who are very keen to see the whole area of mental health moving forward with initiatives such as this. And I’m happy to say that it is really going very well. We’ve had a lot of interest and already, there have been several very successful outcomes.”
*Do host families need to have special qualifications?
>>“No, not at all. What we are looking for is people who are warm, caring, willing to share family life and who are able to work in partnership with our service users. And we provide training and backup support. We have several exploratory meetings first between service users and potential hosts to be sure that they are well suited. Then the service user will have a couple of trial visits just to make sure that it is working out for everybody.”
*And what sort of feedback have you had?
>>“There are already several families throughout West Cork providing this brilliant service. One of our families are Carol and Bob and their kids Michelle, Stephanie, Ryan and Tim. A friend told them about Homelink and they decided to get involved. They attended a training course and were assessed to ensure that they were suitable. Eventually they were matched to Greg who is 18-years-old and lives with his mother and grandmother. Greg had expressed an interest in meeting new people and spending more time with someone his own age.”
*How has this worked out?
>>“Fantastically. Carol has said that her whole family has benefited from Greg’s visits. She told me that they all get together when Greg is with them, and that even her niece Niamh insists on coming over because she doesn’t want to miss out on the fun. Greg’s mother says that he can’t wait to go to their home and visit his ‘Link Family’ And of course, that means she gets a bit of time to herself. Carol and Bob have gone on to provide Homelink for Christopher, who is 16. The aim of Homelink is to provide opportunities for our service users to broaden their horizons, experiences and to form new friendships.”
*It sounds like it’s a win-win situation.
>>“Definitely. Host families have reported how much they have gained from the experience and we’ve had great feedback. And when Carol and Bob were having a family christening recently, they asked if Greg could have a special visit. The whole family said that they couldn’t imagine celebrating the occasion without him there.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved