Lynette Spiteri, a member of BowHaven, relaxes with a cup of tea in the handicrafts room
LocalNewsSocial wellbeing

BowHaven: the local mental health charity that empowers its members

Inside St Stephen’s Health Centre (just off the Roman Road) on the right-hand side of the entrance, you will see the colourful entrance to BowHaven. Once you pass through the doors you will find a mental health centre with a unique, co-produced way of working that has made it a much-loved part of the local community.  Anish Shah, the Director, and Lynnette Spiteri, a service user, talked to us about the Haven’s vital and much-needed work.

How BowHaven came back from the brink

BowHaven’s beginnings lie back in 2001, when mental health provision was being run in the building by social services. Due to cuts, a decision was made to close it down. Rita Dove, BowHaven’s founder, and a group of other users, embarked on protests and petitions to keep a presence in the building and eventually they were told they could continue to run services from the centre if they were able to do it themselves. In 2003, they formed a Community Association called Sun at Bow and in 2006 started running as a registered charity under the new name of BowHaven. In 2008 they employed their first professional member of staff.

Now BowHaven, which originally started with a couple of drop-in groups a week, has 12 co-produced groups a week (co-produced means jointly run by the service users themselves and Haven staff) and 75 clients (or members, as they’re known by the charity). ‘It’s not just what we do, it is how we do what we do’, Shah tells me. ‘We work with our members with a lot of emphasis on the relationship – from a place of safety and security – involving them in the delivery of services. This helps them with empowerment, confidence, building skills they might not have had before. All this helps with the mental health recovery process and general wellbeing’.

BowHaven accepts referrals from mental health professionals for people resident in Tower Hamlets. Occasionally they have to turn down someone who is very high-risk or vulnerable, but it’s very rare that they say ‘no’ to a new member. Alongside their co-produced groups, they also offer intensive 1:1 support for members experiencing difficulties in other areas of their lives, liaising with other professional agencies and helping members access the help or advice they need.

‘Awareness of mental health problems is increasing, but funding is continually reduced’ says Shah, and there is a constant demand for help in Tower Hamlets. Mental health services are a comparatively tiny percentage of the overall health budget but continue to be a Cinderella service, over-stretched and under-funded.

How BowHaven helped local resident Lynnette Spiteri

A smiling woman sits in a room with some other people, drinking a cup of tea
Lynnette Spiteri, a member of BowHaven, relaxes with a cup of tea in the handicrafts room

Lynnette Spiteri, a local who was born and brought up in the area, was referred to BowHaven for help with depression by her GP eight years ago after her grandson died. This tragedy is something that Spiteri does not think she could have coped with at all without the charity’s help and support.

‘It is something you never recover from. This place helps me a lot. It takes you out of yourself, stops you thinking not very good thoughts – the staff are brilliant, you can go to them with any problems. We’re like one big happy family in here, without it I don’t know what people would do… This place has saved my life’.

One of the groups she attends is handicrafts – she says it helps ‘concentrating on stuff you wouldn’t do at home’. Creativity helps a lot of members at the Haven: there is a creative writing group and a music group as well, all set up at the request of members. There is a support group for people who suffer from psychosis and hear voices and another for people who self-harm.

A women’s group helps local women from minority communities with language skills, offering regular ESOL classes. A weekly fitness session held jointly with Ability Bow gives members access to gym equipment and nutrition advice. All of this – and more – is delivered on a tight budget of around £150,000 a year and yet the charity is currently struggling to retain its funding and continue to deliver its services.

Shah explained ‘The work we do helps clients from being heavily reliant on secondary services’. A patient staying overnight in a mental hospital can cost the taxpayer £420 a night – over a few weeks this can add up to many thousands of pounds. People can be kept out of hospital with the help of services like those offered by the Haven.

How to support BowHaven’s vital community work

Spiteri explained to me that BowHaven have already had to cut several activities that everyone loved due to difficulties with ensuring funding. Outings have been cut down, although they were able to enjoy one summer trip to Broadstairs. ‘We used to go out for a Christmas meal and some Christmas shopping – something everyone always looked forward to – but maybe that’s not possible now’.

At the moment BowHaven doesn’t have the resources to train volunteers so financial donations are the best way to help, or you can donate household items (except clothes) to the fundraising stall they run.

Find them at BowHaven, Bow Community Hall, William Place (off Roman Road), London, E3 5ED

Tel: 020 3022 5778 / 07507 002 350

A man sits at his desk, smiling
Anish Shah, the Director of BowHaven, in his office

If you enjoyed this article, you might like to read about Ability Bow, one of our other Good Causes in the area

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Tabitha Potts

Tabitha Potts is a writer living in East London, which inspires much of her work. She has had several short stories published in print and online and was most recently long-listed for the Royal Academy and Pin Drop Short Story Award. She loves reading books, looking at art and kickboxing. Read her work at:

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