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Adelaide residents have spoken of their devastation at the NDIS-related loss of funding to a mental health support service that they credit with keeping them alive and helping them recover.

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They are among hundreds of South Australians living with serious mental illness and disability – many under-served by traditional mental health services – who are expected to lose support from the Personal Helpers and Mentors program (PHaMs) this week.

The new federal funding model for the program – provided by 19 services across the state, and serving over 1000 clients – assumes about 80 per cent of PHaMs clients would transition to the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

But only about 30 to 35 per cent of PHaMs clients have been able to secure NDIS packages for the service, according to the Australian Services Union, which represents social workers.

One PHaMs client writes, in a letter provided with his permission to the ASU and seen by InDaily, that the program has helped him recover from years of abuse and trauma.

“In the past four years I’ve been able to make considerable progress in my recovery but there is still a long way to go to recover from 33 years of abuse within my family and the 13 years of struggle and trauma in the mental health system,” the letter reads.

“(PHaMs has been) a big part of the reduction in my need to utilise the hospital emergency department – which is, more often than not, a traumatic experience and does nothing useful bar keep me alive and then send you off home without anything having changed.

“I’m basically being left with no support due to the changes occurring and I have no idea how I’m going to cope.”

The letter describes how the PHaMs worker helps him with shopping, attending appointments, coping with being in public places, and accessing programs that provide food and clothing.

“She has helped me learn to cope with going out to a café for a coffee … many times I would have been very stuck if she wasn’t there to help me shop for the fortnight’s groceries,” the letter says.

“She (the PHaMs worker) is also a major social support for me. I don’t know what I will do when I’ve not got her to talk to anymore.

“I rely on her and PHaMs program to keep my head above water as much as possible.”

He says he has applied for an NDIS package which includes PHaMs support services, but that he does not expect to secure it, because the NDIS “assessment checklist” does not match his needs.

Metropolitan program manager of mental health services at Uniting SA, Phil Jones, told InDaily the reduction in funding will mean most of his five-person PHaMs team, which manages 60 clients, will lose their jobs.

“We’re down to 1.8 (full-time-equivalent) staff but still have a responsibility for 60 people,” he said, adding that the service will be scaled back to mainly provide support over the telephone.

“We’re really worried about … they’re continuing to stay well, mentally and physically … maintaining their housing, maintaining their connections with community, and (maintaining) quality of life.

“There’s going to be a whole heap of unmet need.”

He said PHaMS was especially important for those who had yet to receive a formal diagnosis or who “fall through the gaps” in traditional mental health services.

“By defunding (PHaMs) we’re going to create gaps again,” said Jones.

“(However), for those that (secure a package with) the NDIS, it could be really good.”

In another letter, a woman who suffers adult attention deficit hyperactive disorder, writes that “I don’t have much of a support system, i.e. family, and my natural instinct during a crisis is to shut down”.

“There were times over the last 12 months where I felt alone, scared and overwhelmed.

“It was in these dark periods where the skill, empathy and perseverance of the PHaMs team really aided me in not giving up.

“Without their assistance during days where I was isolated, sick or hopeless, I never would be where I am today.”

In a voice recording, also provided to the ASU, a PHaMs client warns that losing the service puts her life at risk.

“As a 50-year-old woman who has been in the mental health system for almost 30 years, I’ve … suffered terribly,” she says in the recording.

“PHaMs service has been a saving grace for me, as I can’t talk on the phone, go out by myself, (make) appointments and the list goes on.

“You are playing a very dangerous game with people’s lives, who are already at risk.”

In the recording, she says that letting people into her home is a terrifying prospect, and that her PHaMs worker is the only person she trusts to let in.

“Or if another service is required, she is there to help with the totally overwhelming anxiety and panic that comes with other people,” she says.

“I was led to believe that the NDIS packages were to pay for these services.”

SA Minister for Health and Wellbeing Stephen Wade told InDaily in a statement this morning that he met with the ASU about PHaMs this week and that “the Federal Government is investing an extra $5.6 million in South Australia to provide additional psychosocial support services as part of the transition to the NDIS”.

“Ultimately the move to the NDIS is about empowering clients to choose which provider gives them the best services,” he said.

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