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In praise of day centres

Tuesday, 29 June 2010 Marion Janner

Guest blogger Marion Janner, founder of the Star Wards project overcomes her day centre discrimination.

Despite enormous progressive changes over the last decade, there continues to be ill-informed prejudice and perplexing stigma, inferring or conferring inferiority on those associated with it. My immunity to this stigma for the seven long years that I’ve been severely mentally ill has recently collapsed and I am using this opportunity to bravely come out in public. [Clears throat, extends herself to the full available 4’9” and announces:]

I go to a day centre. A day centre for mentally ill people. A morning a week, sanity permitting.

When I’ve told friends about this, all but one have laughed merrily and started to make requests for baskets for their picnics, pets or poker sets. I asked the dissident why she didn’t regard me going to a day centre as being a bad move, and she replied: “Why wouldn’t I be enthusiastic about you volunteering at a day centre?” When I cleared up the misunderstanding, she laughed merrily but stopped short at placing a basket order.

I have to confess that I was also a bit iffy about day centres before I started going to one. I knew that the relatively few that have survived changes in fashion and funding don’t actually have hundreds of people sitting at assembly benches, in gloomy light, bunging widgets into tiny plastic bags. But I did have lurking doubts about whether there was something – er, inadequate about these services and even perhaps the people that use them. There had to be, really. Progressive services don’t ‘congregate’ people who happen to share a label. My approach was Marxist: I didn’t want to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members, just like Groucho didn’t.

And then I went to a meeting with some of the big-wigs at Jewish Care to discuss Star Wards. It ended rather inconclusively in relation to work, but with me deeply enthusiastic about starting to go to one of their ‘well-being centres’. And two months later, I’m benefiting way beyond what I’d hoped for by going to Kadimah, their Hackney centre. Kadimah is Hebrew for ‘forwards’, usually slightly shouted in a “Let’s go”, or “Onwards” sort of way. It’s also the name of the centrist, liberal party in Israel. I like it that my centre is similarly inclusive and accessible to such a diversity of people, located in one of the heartlands of the ultra-orthodox community, Stamford Hill, but happily embracing everyone from the traditionally garbed to those adorned with tattoos, self-harming scars, bling…. Black, white, old, young, train-spotters and trainee potters.

The staff are wonderful - expert, warm, funny, human/normal/friendly. And completely accessible. Unlike so many services where we have to gear ourselves up to knock on the office door expecting to be told to come back in x minutes, the Kadimah staff are constantly around in the lounge, schmoozing with us.

There are rules, but mainly along the lines of we must feel able to come as frequently or occasionally as we want, take part only in the activities that we’d like to do that day etc. (Of course, eating lots, telling jokes and overstating the achievements of the kids in our life are core expectations.)

The groups are very enjoyable, from a mellowly therapy-lite women's group to the Jewishish film group where everyone's talking at the same time and there's no shortage of opinions. And brace yourselves for this one! We’re welcome to take part in the activities of the day centre for elderly people in which Kadimah is based. Not only do I not find it peculiar or let alone stigmatising being based, lunching and hanging out with ancient Jews, but it feels inclusive and heimisch (homely). And the elders have great guest speakers, music sessions and nice sweets in the bags dangling from their wheelchairs.

Kadimah’s magazine, Shemesh (sun) is remarkable. Edited by the award-winning, geniusly witty and creative member, David Filabon, its 32+ pages are full of articles I feel motivated rather than obliged to read, are a visual pleasure and another regular boost to my patchy morale. Star Wards is hoping to have the honour of publishing Shemesh on our website. (A few more high-calorie enticements for David and team and I hope to have clinched the deal.)

I’m lucky to be well-endowed with social and psychiatric support, but Kadimah combines the best of all these and is now an essential part of my life. Friends have stopped the basket jokes and several are openly envious of my being able to go whenever I want to what feels more club than centre, where I can relax with interesting, friendly, supportive people, enjoy the activities and recharge. With a continuous supply of food and jokes.

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