“Psychiatric patients have been neglected by society at large, and if we only make a difference to one patient on one day, then we’re doing something worthwhile and making an important difference”
– Francoise Robertson, founder of the Friends of Valkenberg Trust.
It all started in 1994, when Brian Robertson, who was then Professor of Psychiatry at UCT and Head of Psychiatric Services, asked his wife, Francoise, to help him improve conditions for the patients at Valkenberg Psychiatric Hospital.
Together, they decided that the they would start by asking family members of patients who had been admitted to the hospital, what they saw as the most pressing need. Francoise invited three mothers to her home to discuss with them how they saw things. In no time they agreed that the old Admission Wards had to be upgraded. Their most painful experience was to admit their loved ones into those run down, cold and gloomy wards. They also felt that the overworked staff, battling with budgets, needed support in carrying out the work of the hospital. There just wasn’t time to give patients the simple individual attention they needed.
Fran, with the support of the Department of Psychiatry, Cape Support for Mental Health and The Comcare Trust, “called a couple of friends” and they formed a team of concerned, caring and practical people. Together they worked on plans to fund and build new admissions wards.
They were in the middle of an exciting programme of activities when the Government announced in 1997, that everything should be put on hold as it was about to close Valkenberg Psychiatric Hospital. Put everything on hold? Just the opposite – Fran and her volunteers, the medical staff and members of the public, were galvanised into action and got a petition signed by service users and concerned members of the public. They organised a march with friends and patients to protest the closure and finally, after two years of relentlessly challenging the Government’s decision, were rewarded by a YES – keep the hospital open.
During this period and with help from her dedicated and loyal group of volunteers, Fran formed a Trust. With support of Volunteers, Trustees and hospital staff, they again began fundraising to build the new admissions wards as well as expanding the range of services offered by the Friends.
Finally, despite external and internal challenges, the new “High Care Unit” was completed in 2005. But the work of the Trust was only just beginning. They proceeded with enthusiasm and vigour – offering an immediate service and meeting identified needs, with the help of a dedicated group of volunteers.
Friends works alongside hospital staff to offer a arrange of services which support the recovery of those admitted to Valkenberg. Perhaps more important than the skill or service which our volunteers provide, is the warmth and attention they offer – while professional staff may not always have the time to chat, our volunteers have the time to listen and enjoy conversation, bringing hope and life and dignity!
“People have been wonderful, and even in the darkest days when continuing seemed improbable and frustration levels sky-rocketed, the generosity and understanding of friends, the public and business kept us going – while there is a patient who is side-lined, feels ignored, or needs a train fare, we’ll be here” – Fran.