DOZENS of people with mental health problems could be forced back to the psychiatric ward if a drop-in support group loses vital funding, its worried members fear.
Regulars at the Sheffield Mental Health Action Group, based above Castle Market, in Sheffield city centre, believe the support and social interaction they receive at daily sessions help keep sufferers with serious disorders away from hospital.
But, this year, the group - whose 100 members suffer mental health conditions ranging from depression and anxiety to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder - is being forced to bid against national charities for funding as part of Sheffield Council's overhaul of how community groups are paid for.
And, although members have secured six months' worth of funding from March onwards, they need to be successful in a national bidding process to deliver their service from October.
They fear opening up the tendering process so widely will put them at a disadvantage - and if they lose out on the cash from the council, they will be forced to close.
Treasurer Scott Milnes said: "It's a really worrying time for us. We believe 30 to 40 per cent of our members would have to be referred back to the psychiatric ward if our service was to close.
"They come to us throughout the day, and have their family there in the evening.Without us, it could lead to a deterioration in their conditions."
He said: "Our core grant of nearly 18,000, which we need to be able to survive, comes from the council - and, from this October, the funding is under threat.
"We have been told the council needs to save 15 per cent of its budget for voluntary groups, and that contracts will now be tendered on a national basis.
"It means anybody has a chance to bid for the money we have previously had, meaning all the big charities and national organisations competing with groups such as ourselves.
"We're worried that, with the capital and experience these organisations have behind them, our application will lose out and we would be forced to shut."
The 44-year-old, one of several volunteers who help run the group, said the impact of losing services it provides would be "devastating".
The service is currently open six days a week offering arts and crafts, exercise sessions, an internet cafe and photography workshops, as well as the chance for members to meet others experiencing similar conditions.
Scott, from Longley, who also lives with mental health issues, said: "People come here from across Sheffield for support from people going through similar issues and simply to get some company.
"There are quite a few places doctors will refer you to but as soon as you turn up, there's health professionals asking you loads of questions about your problems and how you're feeling.
"People can come here and relax, knowing they are not going to be interrogated.
"It seems ridiculous to put our group at risk - we're a local group, who know what our members need, and we've proven the difference we can make to people's lives."
Coun David Baker, deputy leader of Sheffield Council, said: "Given there will be less money overall, the way we fund voluntary organisations has to change.
"Primarily, the system must be made clearer, fairer, more open and better value for money for the taxpayer as we have to make every penny spent count.
"Since we announced our plans in November, we have been consulting with the voluntary, community and faith sector, and we are aware smaller, locally-based organisations are concerned larger, national organisations may have more experience of bidding for contracts.
"I would like to reassure everyone our bidding process will be designed so everyone can compete on equal terms.
"We will look at each organisation we fund to make sure we understand how any changes will affect them and the people who benefit."
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