Tomorrow I am going to a funeral, not of a friend but of a colleague / team-mate, whichever of the two words best fit. I won’t use the person’s real name out of respect. He was 52 and played for the same chess club as me, but he was at a much stronger level so our paths barely crossed. I played once with him and enjoyed his company immensely. But throughout the long game (each of us lost games that lasted four to five hours) he was drinking heavily. It was clear he had a problem. A few weeks later he was hospitalised with severe problems with his liver. A few members of the club went to visit and it was clear that he was very ill. His gaunt figure and depressed face were icons of a body unable or unwilling to walk and eat properly. His situation was desperate.
After six weeks in hospital he was discharged back to his flat with empty bottles of Scotch where a week later he died. With few or no friends to talk of, the bottles were always there to reassure him life was worth living. Tomorrow, a few colleagues from the chess club will stand at his grave with his only remaining relative, a sister who lives far away.
On the day we played in that match together he told me about his great prowess as a chess junior, about how he once beat a now famous grandmaster, about his interesting work in computer programming for a blue-chip company. And you might think that a man with such a mind and talent could find his way in a great city like London with its myriad of opportunities for work and play. But no, here was a person who was out of the social services radar and did not have the ability to ask for help. I wonder how many more like him are out there.
What price do we pay for enabling people with mental health problems to live in the community?
The case of the convicted killer and paranoid schizophrenic being allowed to study “the knowledge” to become a black cab driver was all over the media last week. But I ask the question from a selfish perspective as our small, quiet street with beautiful Victorian houses undergoes a demographic change. First, a housing association has placed a woman with a violent criminal record in a property it owns in the street. Over the weekend outside the property there was an ugly stabbing (not fatal) which left neighbours extremely worried. And earlier this year a private company that provides residential care for people with mental health problems got planning use for the terrace adjoining us as a residential facility for up to five people.
And before mental health providers and charities get precious about me not having the needs of their service users at heart, they need to understand that already in our area, three similar terraces have been bought for the same purpose with some worrying incidents of service users walking the streets having not taken their medicine and one instance where a woman was approached in an inappropriate fashion by a resident of one of the homes.
Care in the Community is the mantra of policymakers who would think twice if the same kind of service they espouse was the terrace next to them (how many architects of comprehensive schools sent their kids to the one they designed?)
I understand that people with mental health problems are as entitled to enjoy the benefits of living in the community as I do; but you know what, I am entitled to as much as they do and if it means my lifestyle is curtailed because of problems then what has been achieved? All I can say is that I hope myself and my family do not incur mental health problems as a result of the experience. What was the line from the song by Madness in the 80s? “Our house, in the middle of the street…”