PEOPLE with mental health problems and learning difficulties could suffer because of doubts hanging over the future NHS funding of an Inverness-based charity.
Spirit Advocacy, which has 400 members across the Highlands, has been forced to shed its 11 staff members ahead of re-hiring seven of them on a one-year contract with reduced pay, hours and employer pension contributions. Two have also agreed to stay on as unpaid volunteers.
The drastic move was forced on the umbrella group – which encompasses mental health and learning disabilities advocacy groups Hug, People First Highland and Speak – so it could remain afloat, after NHS Highland said it could not give a funding commitment beyond next March.
It has given Spirit £100,000 a year for the past seven years towards its £150,000 costs, meaning a real-terms drop in income as prices rise.
Spirit says the year-to-year nature of the funding has also created difficulties in persuading other potential backers that it is on a solid enough financial footing to receive their support.
Chairman Jon King said the impact on its members would be significant.
"Reducing staff numbers and hours means we will not be able to meet as frequently with members, and callers will more often find the answering machine is on, or the building is closed some days," he said.
"All our members rely on access to staff for support. All our members experience the disadvantages of mental ill-health, learning disabilities or both, and many see Spirit as a major factor in helping them express their needs, and in doing so co-operatively with our staff and their fellow members they derive support which some describe as critical to keeping them well."
And he added: "The less immediately obvious cost is the impact of the uncertainty about our future which has caused some of our members to experience great anxiety, not knowing if we will be there to support them in future."
Spirit Advocacy manager Ken Porter added it understands the difficulties faced by NHS Highland, which is working to address a multimillion-pound budget black hole, but added: "We feel that charities like ours are being asked to shoulder too much of the burden, without adequate financial support to do so."
Gill Paton, a Hug member and volunteer, said: "Hug is my lifeline, literally. Being greeted warmly and to have another ask how you are getting on can be the difference between falling into clinical depression and keeping your head out the water.
"Trusting us as members to speak out about stigma, speaking at training sessions, publishing poems and helping to arrange events are not only inclusive but also essential to our wellbeing.
"I am being serious when I say that it has saved my life on several occasions."
Ron Williamson, founder of the Inverness-based suicide prevention group Mikeysline, said: "Spirit Advocacy, and in particular Hug, have helped thousands of people cope with mental illness in their daily lives. The service they provide, not only in guiding, but also in setting policy, is invaluable in the Highlands.
"They are yet another casualty in the continuous, thankless task inflicted on the Scottish NHS by lack of funding from central government. Every day the NHS has to explore new ways of effectively spreading their diminishing resources, and unfortunately Spirit Advocacy is the latest casualty. Undoubtedly others will follow."
NHS Highland said its chief executive, Elaine Mead, wrote recently to all third sector organisations from whom they commission, purchase or fund services to confirm that current arrangements would continue until March 2019.
A spokesman added: "NHS Highland considers this approach to provide a significant and demonstrable commitment to this area of activity in the current financial climate.
"NHS Highland acknowledges that some organisations may consider their current funding levels to be insufficient. Regrettably, there is no current scope for providing any additional financial resources at this time."