Patients occupy threatened mental health clinic, some signs of victory? By Steve Sweeney

23 April 2014 — OurNHS

A seven-week occupation of a Cambridge NHS mental health clinic in Britain threatened with closure is having more success than past campaigning – is this the way forward?

Service users of a Cambridge NHS mental health clinic, ‘Lifeworks’, have been occupying its Tenison Road building for nearly 8 weeks, in a defiant battle to stop its closure.  

The service has been offering vital support for those with Personality Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder for the past 12 years. But the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Foundation Trust now plans to close it as part of a wider service redesign.

According to both NHS England and local MP Julian Huppert “the health system in Cambridgeshire is one of the worst funded in the country” but its trust is facing a further £6.5 million budget cut next year.

The occupiers won an important victory earlier this month when local councillors asked the mental health trust to reopen Lifeworks while they consult users, something which they had previously failed to do. 

Mental health services across Cambridgeshire have aready been hit hard by years of cuts. Seven years ago swathes of mental health beds and wards across the county were closed down, including beds, wards, rehab units, a therapeutic community, community services and day centres. 27 Consultant Psychiatrists wrote condemning the cuts. Health workers, and users groups campaigned hard. But the Trust pressed ahead with the cuts and imposed a ‘gagging order’ to prevent staff talking to the media.

The fight to defend the remaining NHS mental health services in Cambridge has now stepped up to new levels of resistance.

If Lifeworks closes, there will be little left to support its users. Other remaining local organisations have said they do not have the capacity to support any more users.

The Foundation Trust says that service users will be offered a new ‘GP-led pathway’ – but according to service users, only 1 out of 10 current Lifeworks users will get a referral to this new ‘pathway’.

And even those lucky enough to be referred will only get it for 18-24 months. Most users state that their condition is lifelong, not time limited.

Further cuts loom. There are plans to close Art and Music Therapy and other services in Cambridgeshire. There is very little evidence that these closures are ‘clinically led’.

Most of the service users GPs are not even aware the cuts are happening til they hear it from their own patients. This is a long way from GPs being put ‘at the centre of decicion making’ as the government claimed its 2012 ‘reforms’ did.

Mental health trusts across the country face a crisis. They are being forced to make around 20% more savings in next years budget than hospitals and other parts of the health service.

In Cambridgeshire, disastrously over-priced Private Finance Initiative projects have diverted money away from mental health and community care

The fightback has been largely led by women, who make up around 95% of those who use Lifeworks.

Initially planned as a ‘2 hour sit-in’, the occupation has been going strong for the past 7 weeks with no signs of ending. The decision to occupy was taken after service users were sent a generic letter advising of the closure.

Ann Robinson said ‘We were told that Lifeworks was for life, hence the name. We are really angry that nobody bothered to speak to us about the cuts and that they have not consulted with service users, carers or even GPs. Mine did not even know about the closure until I told them and it is them that we are supposed to be referred back to.”

Chair of Scrutiny Cllr Killian Bourke said:

“The proper consultation with service users has simply not taken place. The consultation that did take place was extremely high level and made no specific mention of closing Lifeworks. Services users only learned about the closure of the service four weeks ago, that is why they have staged a sit-in.

This clearly isn’t good enough. The Health Act requires commissioners and providers to ensure that service users are properly involved in decisions about the planning and provision of services. Therefore I am urging the Mental Health Trust to stop the closure of Lifeworks while we get to the bottom of this and service users are consulted.”

Another service user explained that Lifeworks saved her life. She told how she had been “in a mess”, with no contact or support from mental health services. Lifeworks offered her a ‘lifeline”, including crisis management clinics and other sources of vital support.   

She fears that the closure of Lifeworks will leave her vulnerable and isolated. She has already had her benefits cut, including through the ‘bedroom tax’. Many of the other services she used have now gone. She described Lifeworks as being all she has got left.

Similar stories are heard from many other service users.

Under pressure from service users, supporters and Councillors, the Trust has admitted “we could have done more to engage with service users”. It says it is “now planning to have further discussions with all those affected. All options over the future of Lifeworks remain open.”

But they have added

“These discussions cannot take place however until the people who are occupying Tenison Road have vacated the building.”

Users remain defiant.

“We will not be ending the occupation until we have assurances about the long-term future of Lifeworks,” says Ann Robinson.

The occupation has received wide community support, with demonstrations and petitions organised by trade unionists, health workers, charities and community groups.

The occupiers have had to teach themselves to navigate the bureaucratic tangle of Scrutiny Committees, Clinical Commissioning Groups and the like. They have bravely stated their case in meetings in their to attempt to stop cuts and hold those responsible to account.

And they are refusing to be intimidated, despite having been sent letters accusing them of “criminal” behaviour. The Trust also sent in five men to confront two female service users who were alone in the building at that time.

The women say the Trust seems more concerned with the building than with their health and well-being through this difficult and stressful time.

Health bosses are clearly rattled. Medical director of the Trust Chess Denman accused the council of a “hostile and personal attack” for asking tough questions at the scrutiny committee on the decision to close Lifework

The scrutiny committee has demanded that the Trust make them aware of any future planned service changes and has established a working group to scrutinise and address the lack of consultation.

It has asked that the Trust reopen Lifeworks while this process is carried out.   

The women occupying Lifeworks have achieved more for mental health services in Cambridgeshire than anybody else has done for decades. 

The occupation continues. Messages of support can be sent to savelifeworks[at] and the petition can be signed online.  

About the author

Steve Sweeney is a Regional Organiser for GMB and a former Mental Health Nurse. He has been involved in many NHS campaigns including opposing the privatisations of Hinchingbrooke Hospital and of almost £1 billion of NHS services in Cambridgeshire. 

This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 licence. If you have any queries about republishing please contact us. Please check individual images for licensing details.

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