Research suggests that between 27% and 41% of adults with a learning disability also have a mental health need, and our outreach work in this area is vital. Meet Ailsa Brown, supported at the Community Network in Cheriton, who has completely transformed since accessing this kind of support...

Ailsa is a bubbly, larger-than-life character, always making people laugh and keen to lend a hand wherever she can. Last year, United Response helped find her a voluntary job at a nursing home which she does twice a week, offering vital social interaction to elderly people with dementia. It is a role that perfectly utilises her lively, chatty and warm personality.

As well as having a learning disability, Ailsa has an undiagnosed mental health need, and a complicated history including growing up in foster care and suffering childhood abuse. She has been considered vulnerable all her life.

Winning Ailsa's trust wasn't easy

When her partner of 12 years passed away suddenly from a stroke eight years ago, Ailsa found it increasingly difficult to care for her autistic son Kieron, now 18. She spent a lot of time in cafes with people who were a threat to her safety, and both Kieron and Ailsa were at risk of exploitation.

“When we first met Ailsa six years ago, she would reject support, something she had always done with social services, who she had become weary of,” says area manager Martine Norton. “So we had to build trust with her over time using a subtle approach, which started by speaking to her through her letter box, and sustaining contact over time.”

A full and varied life

Today Ailsa actively seeks out our support, which is a huge difference to how things used to be. As well as volunteering at the nursing home, Ailsa is very much involved in activities put on at the Community Network, taking on a supporting role, such as selling tickets at the various events held there. “Ailsa had previously gotten a reputation that she could not be trusted, so we purposely put her in charge of dealing with the money, to show that we’re not judging her and that we trust her,” Martine says.

Ailsa also runs a pop-up shop outside the Network on an ad-hoc basis during the summer months, and accesses the counselling service at the centre as and when she needs to. Job Coach Helen Lawrence provides background support that Ailsa can access in the form of telephone contact whenever necessary.

Getting the right support

In total, the hours of support Ailsa gets a week amounts to only four hours, yet this consistency is a crucial lifeline for her. Had it not been available, Ailsa’s mental health may have deteriorated further, impacting on her ability to care for herself and Kieron.

Helen says, “Getting the right support stops people from being defined by their condition. Ailsa’s confidence has gone through the roof since we’ve been working with her and she is now thriving.”

Over time, she has also become less reliant on support, as Ailsa herself explains: “Before I had the job at the nursing home, Helen was getting four phone calls a day from me. But now she’s lucky if she gets one or two a day – or none a day! She’s helped by keeping me busy. If it wasn’t for her and Martine, I wouldn’t be doing any of this. I’d just be sitting in the cafs with the old lot. I’ve had rocky starts, but it’s all come out good, thanks to them.”

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