Fighting to keep mentally ill in the community

20-04-2006

You can find Camphill communities all over the world. Their philosophy is simple - to create a community where mentally ill and healthy people can live side by side. The mentally ill try to lead as normal lives as possible, taking part in daily activities depending on their skills and abilities. They are free to choose from different workshops, housekeeping activities or work on a farm which supplies the community with ecologically grown food. Mentally ill people, who are usually kept isolated in psychiatric hospitals, here enjoy an everyday routine.

Camphill was the brainchild of Karl Konig a physician who fled from Vienna to Britain together with his family and a group of young co-workers after Hitler occupied Austria. They settled down at a big house in Scotland called Camphill. And there they brought to life a new approach to helping the mentally ill.

The first and so far only Camphill in the Czech Republic is near Terezin, a town better known for the tragic history of its wartime concentration camp. Crossing the road by the Terezin Small Fortress I followed the sign to Ceske Kopisty. The deputy head of the association, Radomil Hradil, had told me I'd have no difficulty finding the blue-painted turret of the main building of the Camphill community. Relying on my rather bad navigation skills I was walking down a road surrounded by muddy fields heading for an Easter market taking place at the community.

I arrived just in time for the beginning of a performance, taking place in a hall filled with cheerful Easter and spring decoration. A wooden stage was packed with local children singing Easter carols.

"We have never had any problems. Relations have been even better since we opened up a bit more and started to organize markets or theatre performances with our clients from Camphill. We cooperate with a local school and a nursery. Children come here to have a go in our workshops. It works very well! And because we have the children interested we also get their parents and grandparents involved, who have started coming here more often."

Says Radomil Hradil about the community's relations with people living nearby. This first Czech Camphill community opened a day center in January 2004, a year later it took in first residents with special needs. At the moment it is home to three mentally ill people.

"They live here permanently together with some of our employees. Some others, clients and staff, come here on a daily basis to spend their days with us, but they return home in the evening. There are a few workshops where our clients work with wood, textiles or clay and they can also work in our ecological garden. Unfortunately our field was flooded this year. A few days ago the water level started falling but the field is in rather bad condition anyway. We are not sure yet if we are going to be able to grow anything this year."

Until the floods the farm was providing not only vegetables for the Camphill community itself but also for several shops selling bio-produce in Prague. Luckily the water didn't get as far as the building itself, but the best topsoil was washed away from the field, and the community also lost its small income from the produce.

It seems that not even the great enthusiasm and hard work of the staff is enough to secure the community's future. In the end it all boils down to money. Radomil Hradil explains.

"In the past we came under the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. But since a change in the law we have been under the control of the regional authorities. Any grants or subsidies come from them. Last year we applied for money in December, it was decided in February whether and how much money we would get. We didn't find out until the end of March. The money didn't reach us until the second half of April. It was difficult to get by. We are not sure about this year. So far it looks even worse as we were given only 30% of the money we asked for. The reasoning was that we spend too much money on our staff. "One on one" care is more expensive than care in psychiatric hospitals where one nurse takes care of more patients. That pressure is understandable as everybody wants to save money. But the main purpose of the Camphill is to provide individual care and if we change it we will be just like any other psychiatric hospital. There isn't a lack of those here."

"We are going to wait until we find some money and once we get it we will open again."

Says Hanka Fuhrerova who has been working in Camphill for nearly a year. Hanka believes that it will survive and somebody will help. But they cannot be sure of succeeding in getting money from the local authorities or EU grants.

"It is difficult work but not as difficult as many other jobs. It happens very often that people come here to relax, to rest. Of course in a small Camphill like ours there are not so many opportunities but we would like people to do something useful and not just for their own gain. We don't want to be workaholics. Of course you won't earn a lot of money here. Money is definitely not a reason to come to Camphill for but what you get is a lifestyle you can hardly afford in any other job. "

Photo: www.camphill.czPhoto: www.camphill.cz

When I pointed out that it must be tough and demanding to live away from other people and the advantages of city life, Hanka replied:

"Well kind of, but on the other hand I don't have to travel across Prague to get home. I just shut the door and lie down. That's it."

According to Hanka it is not the only advantage of the job.

"In contrast to any other work a person is here to live and not just work. In another job you work and then go home to live your life. The important thing is that I am here all day and that apart from days off I live here. I run a household and do all the necessary and usual jobs that are needed."

Photo: www.camphill.czPhoto: www.camphill.cz

Despite all this the Czech Camphill is struggling to find new employees. Even those interested who get trained very often find out that they cannot cope.

Eighteen- year- old Anicka was the last person I talked to during that visit. She smiled at me nodding to my question if she liked the puppet fairytale about Snow White, the highlight of the market.

Anicka is the youngest of the clients. She has lived in Ceske Kopisty for more than five months now.

"I haven't been home for some six years now. My mother didn't want me, my father is in prison and my stepfather used to beat me. It is much better here."

She is sure that if she had to leave Camphill she would miss it very much. Because there are too many things she likes ...

"I like trips, food, sleeping. I like it here."

The only Czech Camphill is going through tough times. But as everybody I spoke to agreed, there is hope that it will survive and perhaps even expand and thrive - a welcome alternative to traditional institutional care.

20-04-2006