Newsmaker: Back to the future - Gil Hitchon chief executive,Together

New title and new direction for leading mental health charity.

Mental health charity Maca rebranded itself this week, but not for the first time. The group that started life in 1879 as The After-care Association for Poor and Friendless Female Convalescents on Leaving Asylums for the Insane has been through several incarnations, and this week it announced its latest: Together.

"Spelled out, the Mental After-Care Association sounds as if it's 60 years old, which it is," says chief executive Gil Hitchon. "We chose Together because it is a modern, inclusive name that says 'we are all in this together', whether service users, carers, families, friends, staff or working partners."

The change of name and identity is marked by the charity's Happiness conference this week, which promotes the concept of wellbeing, a holistic approach that defies traditional categories of mental illness.

It also heralds a return to its philanthropic beginnings. This will manifest itself in a much more grass-roots, community-based approach to supporting the charity's 2,500 beneficiaries across its 100 services nationwide.

"We want to work more closely with communities and say 'think about your own wellbeing needs' rather than pigeonhole everything into the 200-year-old medical model of mental health that still gets used," he says.

Hitchon's own career has undergone a spot of rebranding too. The polymer technology graduate had a spell in technical journalism before retraining as a social worker. He joined Maca in 1983 and became chief executive in 1996.

He says, however, that the charity's next phase will be driven by more than the rebrand. Together needs to reposition itself in a market that is shrinking for mental health service providers.

"I think the sector will have a very different shape in five years' time," says Hitchon. "It is facing a challenge: where do all the large providers go? Together is saying we want to move in a direction that acknowledges our dependence on state funding. However, we don't think that's enough in the future to justify calling ourselves a charity."

And as a charity for which 90 per cent of income comes from local authority-funded services, playing with the extra 10 per cent presents a golden opportunity to build on its philanthropic work.

Hitchon says he wants to engage with the wider community, starting with Together's own staff and service users, to find out what kind of services they need. The concept of wellbeing, which he defines as "a subjective feeling that makes people satisfied with their own lives", will be explored.

Groups will be encouraged to examine lifestyle needs such as employment training, confidence building and management coaching. But he stresses that Together's new focus will be to catch those simply caught up in the "rough and tumble of life".

"Although we will always be a provider that requires the bulk of its in-come to come from government, there's a mass of people who never get access to this central funding because they're never deemed to be sufficiently at risk - that's the group of people we have to work with more."

In keeping with this new ethos of community empowerment, Together established a service users' directorate funded from charitable rather than state income. The users are able to feed their expertise back to their local communities. Hitchon is very proud of the 10-strong body, which has policy-making powers and counts as another step towards the charity's original philanthropic remit.

"We want to retain independence," says Hitchon. "We still think there are some things government will never address properly, and as a charity we should do that."

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