A few weeks ago I spent the day with two men who had very differing but equally complex and difficult experiences of schizophrenia.
One was 32-year-old Mark, who talked about his own illness, and how it had resulted in him spending time living in a homeless hostel, and how he'd almost given up on life altogether. The other was Alastair Campbell, who you might associate more with his former role as Tony Blair's director of communications, but who now is an active mental health campaigner, and an ambassador for Rethink Mental Illness. Alastair recently talked publicly for the first time about his brother, Donald, and how he had lived with schizophrenia for almost his entire life, and who died at the age of 62 earlier this summer.
The two men came together to be part of a film we were making for Schizophrenia Awareness Week, running 3rd to 9th October, on a topic that made all the difference to Donald and Mark's experience of the illness: housing.
Alastair talked very movingly about his brother, and how, despite his illness, he was able to live a very full life. With support from his friends, family and community, Donald was able to work, live independently and enjoy his passion for bagpiping.
However, not everyone living with schizophrenia has this sort of security that allows them to build up the life they want to lead. Mark lives in one of Rethink Mental Illness' 50 supported housing services. He's been homeless, was drinking heavily, has attempted suicide and was in and out of hospital on an almost weekly basis when his illness was at its worst. But for the last three years Mark has been living in supported housing and is now in a position to move out and begin living independently again, and has ambitions about finding a job once he's settled in a new home.
'Supported housing' is one of those terms that those of us working in the sector use all the time, but it might not mean that much to most people, as it only becomes apparent how vital it is when you or someone you know rely on it.
It provides a safe roof over their head but also the vital extras including access to support groups, or help with life skills like budgeting or finding a job. This kind of housing is not a luxury, but fundamental to the many people who have a mental illness and are not yet well enough to live on their own.
Worryingly, this support has found itself under threat from Government cuts and reform over the years, jeopardising tens of thousands of people like Mark's health and recovery. Whereas this reform has been postponed until 2019/2020, it leaves a big question mark over what's in store for thousands of people who rely on this kind of accommodation, and how it will be funded.
Research shows that one in five people with a severe mental illness live in supported housing - the second largest group living in this kind of accommodation after older people.
We believe that access to a safe, decent and appropriate home is a basic right. This is why our new campaign petition, called A Place Called Home, calls on the Prime Minister to ensure full funding for safe and secure supported housing for people severely affected by mental illness, for as long as they need it and wherever they live.
We are campaigning to make sure the government recognises that, for many, supported housing is an indispensable first step towards better health and a better quality of life.
Sign our petition here.
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