Communities shy away from psychiatric institutions
Overcoming stigma remains a challenge when involving communities in activities at psychiatric institutions, however there are some success stories. Lungi Langa of Health-e News Service spent a morning with the Friends of Valkenberg Trust.
Valkenberg Hospital has managed to break through the stigma and is leading the way in engaging communities. In a tiny office packed with boxes containing everything from tins of beans to panty elastic, the Friends of Valkenberg Trust ‘ a non-profit organisation- facilitates various activities with the aim to support patients and staff.
With around 40 volunteers and five part time staff, the organisation coordinates activities such as sewing, arts and crafts, beauty therapy, cooking and sport. They have been doing so for over 15 years.
Programme Manager Sandra Matthew said these and other activities ensured that patients felt encouraged and cared for and a part of the wider community, both during their stay in the hospital and long after they have been discharged.
After being diagnosed with Bipolar Mood Disorder, Rene Bester (46), now an out-patient at Valkenberg and a volunteer with Friends of Valkenberg, spent a few months in the hospital.
‘When I was sick I used to give everything I had away. At some point before being admitted to hospital I gave my bungalow away. I would even go on shopping sprees that left me broke. Doctors kept saying I had depression until I was finally diagnosed with Bipolar,’ she said.
She said her stay in the hospital was lonely until she started taking part in activities organised by Friends of Valkenberg.
Bester took up sewing with one of the groups.
‘We were given simple sewing tasks to complete. It gave me a lot of confidence being able to start something and finish it,’ she said.
This motivated Bester to start helping other patients.
‘Seeing people from Friends of Valkenberg bring toiletries to patients made me realise that it didn’t take much to make a difference in people’s lives. I then started to help patients in the sewing class. I would help them put a cotton thread through the needle which was hard for some of the other patients,’ she said.
Bester also volunteered as a cook and worked in the Friendly Shop – where patients buy second hand items at lower cost.
Matthew said human contact could lift the mood of mentally ill patients. It also gave them a sense of dignity.
‘It’s mostly about human contact, building the patient’s self esteem and ultimately rehabilitation. In one of our pottery groups, a woman walked in and sat down, very withdrawn and refusing to engage. One of the volunteers gave her a piece of clay and over the hour assisted her to participate. At the end of the class, the woman smiled and thanked the volunteer, saying she had not known she could do pottery. Something as simple as that could do wonders for a patient,’ she said.
Libo Msengana-Bam (38) a volunteer with the beauty therapy team, pampers the women of ward 5 -an acute ward for women.
Msengana said when she walks into the ward to set up her cosmetics and the women immediately respond by moving closer.
‘We do their makeup and nails. We just want to make them feel good about themselves. Some of them have been in the hospital for a long time,’ she said.
But it is not only the patients who get pampered.
‘As much as the patients are our primary focus we also dedicate our time to the staff. They are also important. They have a huge impact on the patients’ lives,’ said Matthew
The group often organises events such as the goodwill tea to show appreciation for the work done by the staff. Community engagement is also an integral part of the work done by the organisation with fundraisers on the premises and talks aimed at fighting stigma and dispelling myths about mental health illnesses hosted for the community.
While Valkenberg has enjoyed success in engaging the community, Lentegeur Hospital has been trying with little success. In the last five years no one has come forward and Dr John Parker, a senior specialist psychiatrist at Lentegeur Hospital believes that the stigma around mental conditions is largely to blame.
‘We need hospitals like Lentegeur to be integrated into the community and we need the community to realise that we are part of the community and we are here to serve it. To do that we need community representatives on our Hospital Facility Board,’ said Parker.
Parker said the hospital had been inviting the community for five years but no-one had come forward “to represent the community on its Hospital Facilities Board, which is the first step in setting up a trust like The Friends of Valkenberg”.
The friends of Valkenberg approach shows that it doesn’t take moving mountains to show affection and offer support to those who need it most. The organisation believes that a gesture as simple as providing someone with clothes or spending time with a volunteer interested in sharing a skill or talk could make a huge difference.