LONDON – Five staff at Regional Mental Health London are doing what they can to prepare the last of their 60 remaining clients for the closure of Andrew’s Resource Centre – a workshop that provides basic employment and helps individuals with mental illness to seek jobs in the broader community.
In recent weeks they have been helping clients with resumes, organizing job fairs and polishing up their interview skills knowing it’s going to get a lot tougher for these individuals when the centre closes its doors for the last time at the end of March.
It’s not easy to get a job when you have a severe mental illness and the five staff worry that many of their clients will become isolated when they no longer have the centre to come to.
A friend, a job, a home – these are the building blocks for successful rehabilitation, yet two of three of these blocks are now at risk.
None of the five staff even think to talk about their own futures. Between them they have about 200 years of experience, but amid a growing mental health crisis they too are being told their work is no longer needed.
The resource centre has provided basic employment for up to 120 individuals at a time. Most are former patients at the hospital. Some gain enough skills and confidence to go on to jobs in the broader community, others have been with the workshop for about a quarter century and enjoy the friendships and the self-esteem even a little work can bring.
The work they do is basic. The name of the game is to provide meaningful work but keep the environment as stress free as possible. It’s all most of them can handle. The little money the clients make helps augment their Ontario Disability Support (ODSP).
The workshop does generate money – some of it from local businesses who are able to contract light assembly work. The clients also operate canteen carts throughout the hospital where visitors and patients can access basic food items. It’s also a place where you can get a cheap car wash.
The staff say that aside from their own salaries, the workshop at one point was financially self-sustaining from the revenue it brought in.
Now as the London mental health facility prepares to go into a shiny new public-private partnership facility in 2015, the workshop will be left behind.
It’s the second such program to recently close in the region.
Earlier this year the sister program in St. Thomas closed down. At the time ACE (Alternate To Competitive Employment) was serving about 80 clients. While workers were told that these clients would be able to find work through Goodwill, in fact only four did. What happened to the other 76 is anybody’s guess?
The problem is the Goodwill’s workshop is not the same program. It requires high-functioning individuals to do work at a speed that generates enough revenue to sustain the Goodwill’s charitable mission.
Rather than learn from that failure, the hospital plans to repeat the mistake. The workers say they have already sent Goodwill five good resumes from their London client list. Despite the months that have passed none of the five have been hired at Goodwill’s workshop.
The workers say it would be much easier to understand the changes if the workshop were simply being picked up and delivered by another organization.
It’s not like they haven’t seen this before.
In 2010 another successful community based employment program also closed. The hospital ran it for about a decade. CORE (Choices and Opportunities for Rehab and Employment) had provided work for up to 165 individuals out of an off-site location in the city. CORE provided skills training and operated a successful catering company.
“The hospital promised that CORE could continue somewhere, but couldn’t provide a somewhere,” we were told on Monday.
CORE was closed down with just three months’ notice.
Staff tell us some of the CORE clients did become isolated after the closure and ended up being readmitted to the hospital.
The staff at the workshop say they know their clients well enough that they can tell simply from their body language whether or not they are struggling on a given day. The staff know how to intervene, often preventing a total relapse into the conditions that saw them admitted to hospital in the first place.
It’s far more expensive to admit patients than it is to keep them functioning in the community through such programs as CORE, Andrew’s Resource Centre and ACE.
The hospital, the Southwest Local Health Integration Network and the Minister of Health need to take another look at this closure. This is not a case of a hospital service being divested to the community. It is a community services run by the hospital that is being divested to nowhere.
Before making the same mistake within a year, Regional Mental Health should first find out what happened to the 76 individuals from ACE that were unable to get hired on by Goodwill.
Did some of them end up in hospital? Did they find other jobs in the community? Did they come into conflict with the law? Did they simply go home and become isolated within the community?
The Health Minister says she likes to make evidence-based decisions. We do to. She should encourage the hospital to postpone the closure until we all know what happened to the first St. Thomas group to lose their employment support.
If the outcome we fear has actually come to pass, then Matthews owes it to the community to save Andrew’s Resource Centre.
It’s not too late for a Christmas miracle.