In Stirchley, a group which was originally set up to gather feedback from patients about health services has turned into a thriving social circle, where people are gaining confidence in themselves and making friendships for life.
Members of the South Birmingham Long Term Conditions group (also known as the Patient Health Forum) are living with, or caring for people who live with, a range of long term health conditions.
The forum gives people the chance to influence services, by giving their local Clinical Commissioning Group some insights and feedback about the health services they all use.
But it also gives people the opportunity to meet others with similar issues – a boon for those who would otherwise rarely socialise.
Dennis started coming to the Long Term Conditions Group after what he refers to as a “mental breakdown”. Now, he’s a key member of the group – a committee member with a strong social network.
Four years ago, Dennis’s GP referred him to a Gateway Health Trainer for help with weight management. However, at this point in his life Dennis was also quite mentally unwell. He’d been isolating himself at home, and worrying, to the point where he was having suicidal thoughts.
“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for this group”
Dennis’s stress and worry problems came to a head one night and he emailed several people to ask for help – including a manager at Gateway Family Services. First thing next morning, his Health Trainer Richard visited him at home and arranged crisis support, including an emergency psychiatric appointment and ongoing help from a home treatment team. And later, Richard also introduced Dennis to the South Birmingham Long Term Conditions Group.
Dennis said, “I hadn’t been out for years and years. My flat was my comfort zone. But Richard explained what the group was like and what it was for. He gave me the names of the people who ran it, and I went along.
“When I first started coming, it was difficult to speak to people. I was so nervous, I would just stay quiet. Then the committee gave me a job as a ‘meet and greet’ person. The first time I did that, I remember my hands shaking so much I spilled the tea.
“But over the next couple of years my confidence really built up. Now, I can stand up at the front of the group and make announcements, introduce people and thank the speakers.” He seems surprised at himself. “I even tell jokes!”
Dennis says he likes the group because although people have health issues and can talk about them if they want to, it’s not the focus of the meetings. He says, “We all know everyone has a reason to be here. We’ve all been through something, but you don’t have to talk about it. You can concentrate on the entertainment and the discussion.”
As Dennis is talking, the meeting is finishing and a stream of friends stops by to remind him to call them or meet up later in the week.
“…over the next couple of years my confidence really built up. Now, I can stand up at the front of the group and make announcements…”
He says, “I don’t want to be dramatic but I really believe I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for this group. I haven’t had suicidal thoughts in ages. It’s a stepping stone, if you like, from having an illness to having something to look forward to.”
The regular meetings – which, by popular demand, have gone from being every three months to twice a month – host a range of speakers, including representatives from relevant organisations, charities and agencies, who offer extra advice and signposting.
There are also regular health and wellbeing activity sessions, such as seated exercise and guided meditation, as well as entertainment and social activities, including music and games.
Currently, membership is open to anyone who lives in South Birmingham, or is registered with a South Birmingham GP, and lives with a long term health condition, or cares for someone who does.
However, given the success of the Stirchley group, Gateway is hoping to replicate the model in other areas of the city in the future.
Find out more
The Long Term Conditions Group is always keen to welcome new members. If you would like to be part of a new committee to help establish a group in another area of the city, or if you would just to come along as a member, contact Margaret on 0121 456 7820 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gateway Family Services is a Community Interest Company founded in 2006. Its services cover areas like social isolation, pregnancy and teenage parenthood, healthy lifestyles and workplace wellbeing, and employment training. As a non-profit organisation, Gateway uses any surplus to invest in the education, employment, health and wellbeing of people in its local communities. For more information, visit http://gatewayfs.org.