THIRTY years ago, patients being discharged from hospital after treatment for mental health problems had nowhere to go for support.
The stigma surrounding mental health issues meant they weren’t keen to attend groups based in Bellsdyke or RSNH, and helping them to integrate with the community was difficult.
At the time, Joyce Cottle was in charge of social work at the two hospitals, and became one of the founder members of the Falkirk and District Mental Health Association (FDAMH).
Joyce, who turned 89 this week, said: “People would be discharged and go into their own accommodation but kept coming back to the hospital for their social life.
“However hard we tried to get them involved in the community, we just weren’t able to do it.
“I spoke to the Scottish Association for Mental Health and the then Council of Churches, and they agreed that we would have to set up a special organisation for people with mental illness.
“At this point, it was 18 months before I was due to retire and I didn’t want to work in mental health any more.
“That wasn’t to happen!”
At the time, the organisation didn’t have a permanent base, but operated between a room in a building in Chapel Lane, off West Bridge Street, and Falkirk Old and St Modans Church, where it held two weekly lunch clubs.
Joyce said: “We conducted a survey of people who were being discharged to see what kind of things they wanted – and the main thing was a drop-in centre.”
In 1987, FDAMH moved into the Victoria Centre in Thornhill Road.
Joyce said: “People felt that they had a place to come to, even if it was a pretty grotty place.
“They quickly learned that, if they had an idea for something that they wanted and brought it to us, then the chances were we would set it up if we could find the money.”
The association moved to brand new premises in Victoria Road in November 2007 but the user-led ethos remains.
Jane Shirra, link worker at FDAMH, said: “We do try to fulfil as many requests as we can.
“It’s not always possible but we do the best we can with our funding resources.
“We were previously in a very dilapidated old building and the staff were split up - some were in Thornhill Road and some were in an office in Paterson Tower.
“This place has made a huge difference to our service users, and to the staff too.”
Neil Sowerby, carer support development worker, said: “We were able to have an input into the design of the building and it was nice that people were able to take ownership of the place.”
From its humble beginnings, FDAMH has grown into a much larger organisation.
More than 1000 people every year are helped by the association’s 14 staff and 80 volunteers.
As well as running a drop-in club, the centre offers counselling, a befriending service, women’s group and media group.
Jane said: “We depend on our volunteers quite a lot. They have to have an interest in mental health – they might have had a family member or friend with mental health problems, or maybe they are looking to further their career and want some experience.
“We provide good training for them and are very grateful for the work they do.”
Stuart Aitken is in charge of the befriending project. It is a popular service and, like many of the others on offer, it has a long waiting list.
He said: “If people feel they have become isolated and lonely, we can match them with a befriender to do whatever they want together. It might be going to the cinema or for a coffee or lunch.
“People really get a lot out of spending time with someone.”
With the help of FDAMH, many service users have gone on to achieve things they never believed possible before.
Earlier this year, Glenn Merilees (46), who is part of the media group, had a poem he’d written published in a BBC book called ‘Family Legends’. He was even invited to give a reading of the poem at the book’s launch.
Glenn describes the centre as a ‘‘haven’’ and says the help he has received has boosted his confidence and self esteem.
He added: “The support I have received has been phenomenal. Two years ago I couldn’t even leave the house – I never thought I’d be giving a reading at the BBC!”
Jane added: “The media group has given people a way to express themselves through different mediums. They have done lots of things, poetry, creative writing and art work.
“We now have a gallery of their work on display and it gives a great sense of achievement.”
The gallery is just one of the attractions at the association’s open day which is being held tomorrow (Friday) as part of the 30th anniversary celebrations.
The day will include fun and games for children with face-painting, football, and arts and crafts, as well as a barbecue.
There will also be free complementary therapies on offer as well as information and advice about the services on offer.
Some of the service users will be giving poetry readings and Joyce has also been invited along to cut the birthday cake.
Stuart said: “The aim of the day is to let people know that we are here, and give them an insight into what we do – lots of people probably pass the building but don’t realise what goes on.
“And there will be a few stalls as well – if they help bring in some extra money then that’s a bonus.”