HELPING HANDS: Alicia Spence, manager of the African Caribbean Community Initiative (ACCI)
IT’S ONE of only a handful of black mental health services still standing in Britain today but as the African Caribbean Community Initiative (ACCI) gears up to celebrate its 30th anniversary, this highly respected, multi-award winning centre remains as committed as ever to serving its community.
Back in 1987, the Wolverhampton Rastafarian Progressive Association laid its initial foundations out of concern at the disproportionate number of Rastafarian men in the psychiatric wards of Wolverhampton’s New Cross Hospital.
Three decades later and the ACCI has been a cornerstone for an unrivalled range of preventative, educational, housing and support services for thousands of people who are seen as ‘members’ not ‘clients’ or ‘service users.’
The ACCI has championed every kind of setback since 1987 to retain the welcoming, family-style, homely, vibe that every visitor warms to when they walk through the door. There’s nothing clinical there – just a wonderful smell of cooking and peals of laughter coming from one of the offices.
So how has it survived and thrived? Alicia Spence has been manager for 23 out of ACCI’s 30 years, but the modest, unflappable nurse with specialisms in mental health and learning disability, is adamant that it’s not down to her. When approached by The Voice for an interview, Mrs Spence insisted:
“I don’t want this article to be all about me because the ACCI isn’t all about me.”
SUPPORT: Patrick Vernon OBE, a patron of ACCI and Voice contributer
“I’m blessed with some excellent, longstanding reliable staff. We have roughly 32 staff full and part-time, some of whom have been with us a very long time and they are part of our vision and part of the family.
“We’ve developed the ACCI brand to provide a good quality mental health service and although it was, and still is, primarily for African Caribbean people, we provide a service for whoever comes through our door.
“Being quite selfish, I want to provide a service that’s good enough for me if I need it, and if my son or my brother or sister ever have a mental health problem I need to be delivering a mental health service which is good enough for them. That’s very important.
“Part of our ethos is about service underpinned by humanity. That’s a big thing for me and it really is about not working with people’s diagnoses or labels, but working with the person who presents at our door. I feel we have gained the trust and respect of our community, which is so important when dealing with mental health. We have a responsibility to do the right thing.
“As a person I hate injustice – I have a strong distaste for it and I think we live in a society – and I’m talking society at large, so even in our own community – where there is a lot of stigma, a lot of misunderstanding around mental health issues. Yet one in four of us will experience some kind of mental health issue. It’s probably the most misunderstood, the most distrusted, the most closeted health issue there is.
“People come here because they feel safe here – people say that when they walk in there is a feeling that it’s about family, it’s about home, safety, trust and respect – all those things that help people to feel good.”
ACCI is proud of having one of the strongest carer support groups in the country, reaching out to help those who are caring for those with mental health issues.
Mrs Spence said:
“It’s recognised that carers undergo their own stresses and challenges, so a carers’ support group is hosted here. We usually have a carers’ day of celebration in June in National Carers’ Week and this year, as part of our 30th celebrations, we’re having it in the Mayor’s Parlour.”
It’s not surprising to learn that ACCI is the holder of an NHS Beacon Award – a health service ‘Oscar.’ At the time it was probably the only black service to receive the honour for its innovative and partnership working. In 2016, Mrs Spence was recognised in the UK Top 30 of mental health care experts, put together by the human rights campaign group Black Mental Health UK. She has an impressive amount of silverware and other awards on her office shelves, but bats off questions about them, smiling saying that she simply sees working in mental health as her ‘divine purpose in life.’
Between 25 to 30 people visit ACCI’s ‘engine room’ every day – its health and well-being hub in Waterloo Road where members can have a hot meal, have some companionship, or build some team spirit through activities such as cooking together, or having a game of dominoes. There are around 300 members on ACCI’s books.
It also runs supported accommodation for both men and women at several sites across the city, while also providing outreach support and a holistic counselling service funded by the National Lottery. Much of the general funding is provided by Wolverhampton City Council and the local Clinical Commissioning Group.
“Some of the people we work with have quite challenging issues, such as substance misuse – this is a major issue. Sadly, we are seeing an increase in suicide among young black people. Also, there are more young women coming into the mental health system.
“As families and communities break down, there is less support and people are less resilient and don’t have the kind of back-up that there used to be, along with the pressures of society at large.”
And what of the future?
Mrs Spence said:
“It’s all about maintaining the standard and not being complacent. Every day we have new responsibilities to give of our best. It’s like today is the first day.”
Plans are already well underway for a celebration gala awards night to mark ACCI’s 30th year at Wolverhampton’s Dunstall Race Course on Saturday 16th September. There will be Beacon of Hope awards presented to members as part of the fund raising night.
Paying tribute to the centre’s work, Patrick Vernon OBE, an ACCI patron and Voice contributer, said:
“This anniversary is an important landmark in the black mental history of this country, as the ACCI is one of the few organisations still in existence.
“It has supported and turned round the lives of thousands of men and women during this time. I’m proud to be a patron of ACCI which has shown such a commitment to this community in Wolverhampton.”
People wishing to buy tickets for the gala celebration night can contact the centre on 01902 571 230 or email: email@example.com
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