Pioneer changing the mindset towards treating mental illness

JOAN Hamilton feared her daughter would end up trapped in a cycle of what she calls the “revolving door” of psychiatric services.

She felt there had to be another way to treat people with a mental illness — something that was not so isolating and negative as a hospital stay. Not finding it anywhere, she took matters into her own hands and set up Slí Eile, supported community living where people can recover from their illness and re-learn life skills at their own pace.

“For every four people discharged from psychiatric hospital this week, three will be re-admitted,” Joan says.

“It is a revolving door that has a soul-destroying impact not just on the person but their wider circle of family and friends.”

Slí Eile was set up in 2004, and she is fundraising now for another pioneering initiative — a residential farming community, also for people recovering from mental health difficulties.

With actor Jeremy Irons as a patron, Ms Hamilton hopes this will help to boost the profile of the appeal.

“We are looking for private donations, I need to raise about €2 million to purchase and develop the land. I am looking for philanthropic donations.”

The farm will cater for up to 16 people at a time and Ms Hamilton is looking for €20,000 a year from the HSE to keep someone, far below how much it costs to keep someone in hospital.

The service user then will just have to pay rent and a little towards a house kitty.

“This is unique and exciting. I volunteered at a farm like this in the US. It works. We will have chickens, sheep, horticulture, allotments and a farm shop. We will have enough to be self-sufficient.”

Slí Eile, based in Charleville, Co Cork, provides support for up to six people at a time.

The problem, Joan says, is that although she knows the service works, “How do you promote it? How do you change the mindset — you’d think there would be a queue at the door but how do you let people know about something like this and convince them it works?

“People say that the main reason for re-admission is the stigma, the isolation and loneliness they encounter on discharge from hospital.

“I set up Slí Eile as a practical solution, a way out of this revolving door and also to tackle the stigma.

“The initiative is affordable to anybody, with rent at €70 and €60 a week for a house kitty.”

Joan says it is about changing people’s perceptions and broadening their horizons to consider other kinds of treatment.

“I know so many people who on first appointment at hospital will be told their son or daughter will be on medications for rest of life and will never hold down a job. I think that it appalling. Where is the hope?”

But challenging convention and medical status quo is never easy. “Unfortunately people tend to come to us as a measure of last resort.

“People always think the psychiatric services are going to work and families keep going back, but then the penny drops that there is another way.”


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