Press the bell in the lobby of 5 Downes Street in Bridport, announce yourself, and climb the stairs.
There’s a buzz of conversation, a table full of a cheerful collection of mugs, a tin of chocolate biscuits and an iced cake and a tantalising aroma of simmering soup holding the promise that lunch isn’t far away.
The Harmony Drop-in centre is at once a social hub, a place of comfort and support and perhaps a lifeline, in a world where some people feel very much at sea.
It’s all about informal support to local people who are living with a mental health problem.
When the Hughes Unit closed at Bridport’s Community Hospital the west of Dorset lost all its in-patient mental health beds.
When the daycare service also disappeared, it clearly left a gaping hole.
“It was just terrible,” admits Dave, one of more than 50 members of Harmony.
“Every day, there was nowhere to go, nobody to see. Now, in many ways this is better. There are no doctors and nurses around; it’s just people who understand.”
Thanks to a determined group of local people and organisations, the NHS eventually provided the space for Harmony and funded a position for a manager and facilitator, Joanne Seward.
The news has now come that the funding is extended for another year, much to members’ relief.
For Helen, who admits she was very isolated and alone, finding Harmony was: “A dream come true.”
And Rosalind, having read about it and looked it up on Google says it took some courage to go the first time.
“But as soon as I had a cup of coffee I felt as if I could be the person I am, without having to put on an act all the time,” she says.
Gina first saw a poster advertising Harmony.
“I was having a really bad time,” she admits.
“I came, I rang the doorbell and I met Joanne. It is a marvellous group. I can be myself and for me that is so important.
“We are all normal people who are afflicted by a horrible mental health condition that is little understood, but we are so much more than our mental illness.”
A range of activities are available from arts and crafts, relaxation sessions and Friday is soup day, when lunch is a bowl of home-made soup made by member Dave, a talented cook.
A members’ committee helps run the group, greets and “buddies” new members, helps to select potential new volunteer helpers and staff and plans outings and events. A code of conduct operates and the members themselves decide how best to deal with any breaches.
Anyone can join; and only the barest necessary details are taken – it is up to members to share as much as they wish about their situation. Members are clear, though, that being able to speak freely about having a mental health condition among sympathetic companions who understand, completely, is a powerful boost.
Many agreed that they would never talk about their health issues “outside”.
“There is no pressure to join in,” says Joanne Seward. “We encourage every member to use the centre as they wish.
“Some members visit us each time we are open, some may pop in weekly to say hello and others may visit only when they feel the need for a little extra support.”
Joanne explains that Harmony uses a recovery-based approach.
“Some people who are living with a mental health problem will continue to experience problems long-term, but they may choose to work towards personal recovery by trying to live a meaningful and satisfying life now and having hope for the future.
“Peer support is a big part of Harmony and a warm welcome, a friendly face, a chat and the chance to feel part of something is often enough to help people to keep moving forward.
“Anybody who feels they need our help can just come and ring on the bell and join our gang!”
Opening hours are Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 11am to 3pm.
Elsewhere in Bridport, the Moving On social group for sufferers of serious long-term mental illness meets on Tuesdays between 10.30am and 1.30pm at Bridport Youth and Community Centre in Gundry Lane.
There are a range of social activities, from art, to keep fit and board games, and tea and coffee is available in an informal setting where members can relax and chat together. More information from Jilly Jakeman, Moving On Group Facilitator, on 07503 547152.