Our origin was in the Industrial Therapy Movement; a movement starting in Bristol in the 1950s, and based in the old mental hospitals. However, BITA, founded by Dr Norman Imlah, Medical Director of All Saints Hospital Birmingham, was the first to move from the hospital to the community in an attempt to create real working environments – an early example of social inclusion. A car wash, followed by a factory unit were set up near Birmingham city centre, and after several moves the current Alcester St site was opened in May 1973.
Inevitably we have undergone enormous change; our staff, at first all nurses, are now made up of people from non-clinical backgrounds. Referrals from the community, and later self-referrals, became the norm and Better Pathways’ environment increasingly reflected an ordinary place of work and training.
Over the years, a variety of social enterprises were set up including candle making, soft furnishings, gardening and a retail food outlet, with the aspiration of becoming self-funding. This aspiration came about because of our determination to continue to offer training and support for those with more severe disabilities. Unfortunately, productivity was limited, these units were unable to break even and were closed in 2018. A training unit created in the early 1990s offering NVQs was also closed in 2016. Our factory unit, now called Better Assembly Services (BAS), gained popularity due to its purpose of supporting those with more serious mental health problems and learning disabilities, therefore becoming an element of Better Pathways we have put much effort into continuing. We have developed a variety of supportive social activities alongside our work, including a football team playing in a local league.
Our funding had historically come mainly from the Health Service through the different NHS structures created following organisational changes. We also received City Council funds from the late 1990s. With austerity, came reductions in funding and our workshop and social enterprises and training centre were no longer supported financially. Health Service funding was henceforth focused mainly on contracts to find and support people into volunteering, education, training and employment opportunities in the community. We hired an employment placement worker in 1999, and also provided an Information Advice and Guidance Service in 2004. Our first contract, EVEs (Education, Volunteering and Employment) was won in 2012. We won the Individual Placement and Support (IPS) contract in 2017 and it now forms a major plank of our work. With the reduction in statutory funding, we have increased our applications for grants from charitable bodies.
We know well that lack of work is a major burden for people with mental health problems and learning disabilities. This deprives people of opportunities and contributes to stigma, poverty, achievement, social contact and the ability to structure their time. Over 90% of people with serious mental health problems are unemployed and research shows that work improves symptoms and quality of life. Helping people with mental health problems and learning disabilities through work and activity remains our mission. As described above, we have undergone many changes since our beginnings, some chosen, others forced upon us. We have adapted and will continue to do so while retaining our core beliefs.