A self-help group was initiated in 1990 by a trainee psychiatrist from the South-Verona Psychiatric Service and a few young mental health Service users. They shared an interest in sports, especially jogging. The junior doctor already had experience with self-help groups for alcoholics, and transferred the model to mental health Service users. Other social activities besides sports took place, including those common in other user organisations, like consciousness raising and advocacy.
The group steadily grew to the present number of about 400 members and associated, including the members of two more groups established in nearby areas. In 1995 the group formed an association, I Cavalieri di San Giacomo. San Giacomo was the name of the old mental hospital in Verona. The area still keeps the name and presently includes the university hospital, the South-Verona Mental Health Centre, and a park, so the name is full of associations.
The Users’ Organisation has been regularly supported by the South-Verona CPS. The psychiatrists from the Mental Health Centre and a social worker from the service also allocate part of their working time to the Organisation. In addition, the Organisation uses the Mental Health Centre as a temporary base, so the community nurses of the centre are constantly in contact with the members of the Organisation. This co-operation has proven mutually rewarding to date. The number of people attending the Mental Health Centre has increased and become much more heterogeneous: the presence of younger and more active people at all times helps to make the place a lively one. Questionable but persistent institutional barriers and taboos that had survived for more than a decade, i.e. restrictions in the use of spaces (like the kitchen) or appliances (like the computer) quickly disappeared. Nurses have been active in volunteering to organise shows, parties and other events with the users.
The goals of the group are those characteristic of self-help organisations: participation is totally voluntary, the approach is non-medical and involves reciprocal support, self-determination, counselling, education and advocacy. However, while other Self-help groups have developed services completely outside the mental health system, this organisation operates within the system and in close collaboration with it. Three further goals are highly valued by the organisation and actively pursued through various activities: finding work and supporting those with jobs, help with housing, and education.
The self-help organisation has proven effective in both reducing personal and social discomfort and related stress, thus probably preventing the occurrence of some psychiatric episodes. By providing an alternative to professional care through reciprocal support, it has probably reduced the risk of institutionalisation. It has been far more effective than official bodies in helping users to find and maintain a job. As a consequence, the agency of the ULSS responsible for the work-settlement of people with learning disabilities recently signed a contract of co-operation with the Users’ Organisation.
In the near future, a worker’ co-operative will start up as a pilot project implemented jointly by the mental health service and the Users’ Organisation. This will both provide work placements and inaugurate an enterprise completely new to South-Verona: a user-managed business.