- They help patients with anxiety and depression become self-care experts
- There are now more than 30 of the pioneering centres across Britain
- But last month, health chiefs in Essex closed one college despite protests
- Now, there is concern that other self-help schools may now face same fate
By Erica Camus and Sophie Goodchild for The Mail on Sunday
Recovery ‘colleges’, which help patients with anxiety and depression become self-care experts rather than relying on therapists, are under threat, campaigners have warned.
First launched six years ago, there are now more than 30 of the facilities across Britain, based in community halls, day centres and hospital campuses.
The pioneering centres – funded either by the NHS or charities – provide workshops run by and for those with mental health conditions, including people suffering from long-term illnesses such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
However, there is concern that these self-help schools have hit a funding crisis. Last month, health chiefs in Essex closed one college despite protests. Campaigners say others may now face the same fate.
A petition against the axeing of the Mid Essex Recovery Hub and College, which had been running courses in Chelmsford since 2013, raised more than 800 signatures.
But a spokesman for North Essex Partnership Trust, which ran the college, said: ‘The Mid Essex Clinical Commissioning Group is no longer funding it.’
Clinical psychologist Rosie Beck said recovery courses such as those she helps to run in Manchester can save patients reaching crisis point. She described them as a vital resource for an already cash-strapped mental health service.
‘There’s no doubt people learn vital skills like relapse prevention,’ said Dr Beck. ‘They empower people in taking charge of their recovery. Learning from peers, others who’ve had a similar experience, is a really major element.’
It was revealed recently that more than 2,000 psychiatric beds have been lost across England since 2011, which represents a 12 per cent decline in the total number available. It also found that seven people had killed themselves since 2012 after being told there was no hospital bed for them.
‘You can’t treat mental health like a light switch – you can’t flick support on and off,’ said Paul Cook, who was a tutor at the closed Essex college. The former City broker credits the facility with helping him recover after he suffered a breakdown several years ago.
‘You can’t use people who are bipolar or suffering from severe anxiety as crash-test dummies, then switch off support and disrupt their lives,’ he added.
Bipolar disorder, once called manic depression, typically causes sufferers to experience periods of extreme energy or mania, followed by depression. One well-known sufferer is Hollywood actress Catherine Zeta-Jones. She now successfully monitors her own condition and even attends residential clinics when she needs to, to receive ‘maintenance’ treatment.
A spokesman for Mid Essex Clinical Commissioning Group said: ‘After extending the pilot scheme for a further six months, the CCG has had to face the tough decision of whether to continue with funding.’
An American concept, recovery colleges were first introduced in Arizona in 2000 after a mental health inpatient was forcibly restrained against their will and subsequently complained.
The patient asked that they be able to work with, not against, staff and clinicians for the best outcomes, and requested a less paternal-child relationship with staff.
The first centre to open in the UK was the South West London Recovery College in 2009.
The idea is that the patient works with a tutor – or recovery coach – who has direct experience of a mental health issue.
This model of peer support is already used to help people suffering from drug addiction.
Courses can last half a day or up to six months. The sessions range from life-skills workshops, such as how to manage a budget, through to managing bipolar disorder from the perspective both of a patient and family member.
A GP referral is not necessary before attending a course. However, most of the people signing up for recovery college workshops are already known to the health services and will already be receiving treatment.
Research has shown that recovery colleges can help people develop a more positive outlook on life. More than two-thirds of those taking part said they felt more hopeful about their future than when they started the course.
A follow-up at 18 months also showed that more than four in five had been successful in developing their own ‘self-help’ plan for managing problems and staying well.
And those who attended at least 70 per cent of sessions showed a marked reduction in their use of other mental health services.
In February 2011, the Department of Health commissioned the charity the Centre for Mental Health and the NHS Confederation’s Mental Health Network to pilot new ways of helping people recover from mental health issues. These included encouraging the development of recovery colleges.
‘Provision is still patchy and not everywhere has invested [in recovery colleges],’ said Andy Bell, deputy chief executive of the Centre for Mental Health. ‘But there is a case for these to be supported on a human and financial level.
‘It’s early days and we can’t say yet that they lead to fewer hospital admissions. But for a small investment we get a lot more out then we do with old-fashioned approaches.’