To mark World Mental Health Day (10th October), one of Hightown’s senior support workers, Andrew Curl (who has over 30 years’ experience in support) talks about Hightown’s drive to empower those with enduring mental health issues and James Claridge, a service user at Culverton Court.

Hightown provid dedicated support for over 260 residents with mental health issues across eight supported living services in High Wycombe, Aylesbury, Princes Risborough, Hemel Hempstead and Stevenage.

Andrew works at Culverton Court in Princes Risborough, a supported living service for 24 adults with mental health issues. The staff at Culverton Court provide residents with social and emotional support whilst helping them gain or regain daily living skills to help them become more independent .

Tackling the stigma of mental health

The language used to talk about mental health has a huge impact on an individual’s sense of wellbeing and this is especially important in the home, as Andrew explains: “When I started working in support the place I worked was called a ‘home for the mentally handicapped’. I also remember St John’s Hospital in Stone, the Victorian ‘mental hospital’ in Buckinghamshire which was like an asylum with its own community inside the walls. There were lots of institutionalised practices back then.

“Over the years, the language we use is changing. We now talk about ‘recovery centres’ and ‘wellbeing campuses’ more neutral, empowering language that helps tackle the stigma.”

Empowering residents to make their own choices

The role of a support worker is no longer about instructing service users or managing services. Andrew says: “Our service users are not passive recipients of care. It’s about negotiation and getting the balance of choice right.

“We’re getting better at listening all the time. We have tenants’ meetings, suggestion boxes and service users give opinions on our policies. It’s important that, where we can, we genuinely act on their feedback. It gives individuals more ownership of their lives.”

That’s what I’ve loved, seeing people make progress and live fulfilling lives. We have a duty to enrich their lives, where we can.

Giving back to society

Even today, there are assumptions that people who need support are a drain on society’s resources. As Andrew explains, many of Hightown’s service users do voluntary work: “We have service users volunteering at the library, for the hearing dogs service and St Johns Ambulance. This is great for them as they are a part of something and it integrates them into the community.

“It’s wrong to make assumptions about our service users. I support a service user who speaks several languages, another who is part of a tennis club and another who plays piano for the elderly. They’re as diverse as any other group of people in society.”

Ten steps forward: James’s story

James Claridge has lived at Culverton Court for five years. He was very academic at school, achieving three As at A-level and went on to study at university, however after a couple of years James became very ill and returned to live with his parents. A frustration with what he perceived as the ‘monotony of life’ spiralled into mental health issues and resulted in James moving to a mental health hospital in Aylesbury.

“Although it was one step back at the time, it ended up being ten steps forward as I moved to Culverton Court which has been brilliant for me. The staff here are very good at adjusting support for different people according to their needs.

“I volunteer at Haddenham community library, where all the staff are volunteers and also at Princes Risborough library. At the moment, I’m typing up old letters written during the First World War on to a computer. It’s really interesting and it means that we can preserve the memories from the letters.”