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A Short History of the Formation And Fortunes of Sunderland Mind

Written by former much loved staff member Janice Wilson.

Over 34 years ago a group of individuals from very diverse backgrounds met in a back room hired from the local CVS in Sunderland in response to a small advert which had been placed in the Sunderland Echo. The advert simply gave notice of an informal meeting to test the idea that there may be potential in the formation of a self-help group to support individuals confronting mental health problems. In those days the statutory mental health services were not as developed as they are today, but recently introduced “miracle” drugs like Librium and Valium were being prescribed with gay abandon, because they appeared to suppress the symptoms of poor mental health with no side effects. The use of ECT’s also seemed to be unrestricted, even though it was later discovered that much of the equipment was uncalibrated and delivering uncertain levels of electric shock to the troubled brains of depressed individuals.

A few of those who wanted to test the opinions of the service users paid for the advertisement and hoped that there may be a response. To their surprise the small room they had hired quickly became crowded and they knew they had uncorked a hitherto unspoken need for those coping with poor mental health to be able to articulate their feelings.

It was decided to form a steering group to try to plan a strategy. And what a group it was! There was a senior social worker, who had pioneered service user involvement in Newcastle. There was a college lecturer; a manic depressive, an individual who could not keep still, and others including Stuart Kohn. Stuart was the driving force behind the organisation and went on to become the Chairman for in excess of 28 years before his retirement in December 2005. He himself was a survivor of Valium, ECT’s and psychiatry but was surprisingly undamaged by the experience. His depressive illness, and recovery from it, convinced him that the service user must, in the future have a choice in the treatment offered, and be able to socialise without fear of being ridiculed. Mental ill health touches all of us at some time in our lives, and a non-clinical approach to recovery can be as effective as the cocktail of drugs that are offered to patients in the hope that the symptoms will disappear during the course of the treatment.

Of course clinical solutions to poor mental health are often successful, but when the treatment is over, the individual needs to recover self-esteem and confidence to face the pressures of a “normal” world once again. If was felt by the steering group that the most effective way that it could make a difference would be to establish a social meeting place that would be available on a regular basis in a suitable location in the centre of Sunderland.

The problems of finding premises and sympathetic owners were acute. The public were not as understanding as the group would have liked and when the behaviour of some of our group’s service users were not to the liking of those who had rented out the premises the group found itself homeless. It was a repetitive problem that culminated in the group being evicted without notice from a church hall because one of the service users had visited the adjacent church and blown out all the candles.

As Stuart walked along one of the streets leading from this latest disaster, he noticed a semi-derelict building that was in the right location, was available for rent and looked as though it could be suitable for development into an appropriate meeting place.

The landlords were located and were suspiciously over-eager to offer a lease on the building in Norfolk Street. When the keys were obtained it soon became clear why! The inside was more derelict than the outside and the steering committee almost fell through the floorboards as they inspected this once proud town house that was much larger than they had anticipated. Although they only had enough money in the bank to pay the first three months rent, they took a risk and signed a six month lease because they had identified one room near the front of the building that could be made habitable.

Then a series of coincidental good fortune occurred. At the time the government sponsored Urban Aid programme was looking for projects to support. A call to Stuart from the Local Authority asked whether he was involved in “this mental health project in Norfolk Street”.  There was a possibility that there may be a grant available. A bid was quickly submitted for nine months rent, as this would secure the emerging group’s premises for at least a year. An officer from the Local Authority rang back and said that the bid was “very interesting” but was there any possibility that the building could be purchased? The landlords were contacted and a price of £19,999.00 was agreed. Almost, by return, the Urban Aid cheque arrived and the group now owned a building that was in a very poor state of repair but represented a secure home for the project.

Within a month of taking up residence another call came in asking whether any remedial work was needed to make full use of this, once lovely, building. The Urban Aid fund had some surplus monies. Tenders were requested and the Local Authority chose a local company (now sadly no more) to carry out a full overhaul of the entire building. Another £20,000.00 transformed the three floors, and the Sunderland Mental Health Group was well and truly launched.

It was during this period that the group decided to affiliate with National Mind and it was renamed Sunderland Mind.

The ground floor front rooms became the reception and office space, the toilets were upgraded, and a rear room was used for small groups that may want to develop their own projects. This then became a staff room but recently, due to a surge in demand for counselling, has become a counselling suite.

Upstairs a space for a Drop-in was developed which could accommodate up to 25 individuals, and had its own snack bar. A state-of-the-art kitchen was installed (although the equipment was later stolen bizarrely by being lowered by rope to ground level, and had to be replaced), and a bistro/restaurant space was also developed. The attic space was refurbished but it was not until some years later that it was used to deliver counselling and holistic medicine services. A new suite of toilets on the first floor were also installed.

Sunderland Mind has now had a record of delivering services for over 34 years. Initially the Drop-in opened just five days-a-week. It now offers the facility each day of the week. Hot meals are now served on a number of days at low cost. Counselling and advice is available free of charge with almost no waiting list. A number of trained therapists also offer a range of complimentary therapies to service users and members of the public alike for a small fee.

Back to the building: One day, whilst in the front office, an irregularity in one of the carpets was spotted. Further inspection revealed a trapdoor and a spiral staircase down to a cellar space. The space was damp and contained piles of rubble, but, it was a potential new space for Sunderland Mind to develop. Once again a call at the right time was made and another Local Authority fund was identified with “just enough money to pay for developing the cellar” available. Another £10,000.000 and Sunderland Mind now had a space to hold social events and to welcome other emerging groups. One of these turned out to be Streetcare – a project for the homeless- and they continue to use this space three times a week to offer simple food and drinks to a regular community of individuals who do not have a regular base to live in.

During the initial years, the management committee felt that neighbouring Washington should develop a centre with a similar philosophy, and a number of that committee set themselves on a path to achieve that aim. Washington Mind is now as much a part of the fabric of Washington as Sunderland Mind is part of Sunderland.

Mental health care has radically changed since those early days. Government legislation through the National Framework for mental health and Local Authority demands that its core grants should be strictly monitored and deliver best value has created new pressures for the voluntary sector. Sunderland Mind has faced up to these changes, and is continuing to adjust to new demands. The most important strand running through the whole history is that it has worked within the system but has retained its independence and individuality so that it continues to deliver a unique mental health care service, which is not available from the statutory sector.

Posted on: 3rd March 2024

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