Raksha Pandya, Mind in Harrow’s User Involvement Coordinator, passed away on 6 April 2020 from a serious physical health condition diagnosed recently. Her death was not related to Coronavirus.
Raksha worked for Mind in Harrow in different roles for 16 years and was the User Involvement Coordinator for 9 years. She was exceptionally effective in this role – being a passionate advocate for service user rights, empowering a team of Harrow User Group (HUG) Representatives and running several successful campaigns for service improvements. Photographs of Raksha taken during her whole period at Mind in Harrow can be seen on links below.
She embodied Mind in Harrow’s mission and values so beautifully and is a wonderful inspiration for us. She was genuine, authentic and empowered others to be themselves, grow and shine.
She was an inspiration and role model for people with mental health problems, having been a mental health service user herself and drawn on own her experiences to have such a positive and influential impact both locally and nationally.
She is profoundly missed at Mind in Harrow. We are deeply shocked by her sudden death.
Our thoughts and prayers are with her family and friends.
Owing to the current period of community isolation for Coronavirus, a memorial event to celebrate Raksha’s life and achievements will be held when travel and social contact restrictions are lifted.
Raksha’s career at Mind in Harrow lasting 16 years
Raksha joined Mind in Harrow in 2004 as the Admin Assistant to the Asian Befriending Service and Refugee Project working 10 hours per week. She brought with her a diverse range of skills, having previously had jobs at British Gas, a bank, the London Fire Brigade, the Met Police and Harrow Citizens Advice Bureau.
She was a local person, having grown up and gone to school in South Harrow. Her parents came to England from Kenya in East African and were from the Gujarati community.
She said that prior to joining Mind in Harrow that she tended to changed jobs every 2-3 years, but she said that she found with us a community of people where she felt had home and supported. She grew here into being one of Mind in Harrow’s most exceptional, inspiring, loved and impactful members of staff.
She worked with the Asian Befriending Service and Refugee Project until the Lottery funding ended in 2008, when she was redeployed to join our Stepping Stones education programme as the part-time Support Worker and soon afterwards also become the User Involvement Support Worker in 2009. At Stepping Stones Project, she was able to demonstrate more of her creative ability ably managed and supported by the very experienced Coordinator Gillian Samuel. Through her User Involvement Support Worker role her campaigning ability and passion came to the fore, which has been honed through years of campaigning work for animal welfare.
In early 2011, following a successful interview she started her journey as the User Involvement Coordinator, through which she developed the project into being recognised as one of the most dynamic, effective and well-known mental health service user campaign groups for local Mind Network in England. She became recognised as an expert not only in Harrow but on the national stage.
She had not been able to complete a formal education to level of her ability, although she had a high degree of intelligence, was a quick and clear thinker and had natural intuitive understanding of and rapport with people. However, she was able to express her abundance of talents as the User Involvement Project Coordinator owing to the broad scope of the role, working with mental health service users, senior leaders in NHS and Local Authority, politicians and national Mind’s campaign and parliamentary team.
She was also especially gifted at supporting and finding creative solutions for people with acute mental health needs who were struggling to access the right support from NHS or Local Authority. She was fearless in fighting for people who were not able to stand up for themselves and determined not let any obstacles stand in the way of people desperately needing help or treatment. And she was able to learn from these experiences to address systemic concerns about health and social care services with the senior decision-makers responsible, holding them to account.
Raksha’s achievements as User Involvement Coordinator
Raksha’s achievements and impact over her 9 years as User Involvement Coordinator from a local level to the national stage.
Locally in Harrow, she made a difference to the lives of thousands of residents:
• She pioneered work on the local mental health inpatient wards, visit fortnightly with Service User Representatives with Reps to speak with patients, provide support and developed a new discharge information pack given to all patients when they left hospital
• She was led successful campaigns to counter the impact of the government’s Austerity Programme which put at risk the Council’s Discretionary Freedom (Travel) Pass and Council Tax Support Scheme and as a result both types of support are still available for residents with mental health needs.
• The exceptional value and strength of the User Involvement Project was recognised by local politicians in 2018 when a proposed cut to the funding of the project resulting from the Austerity Programme was reversed. Very few local Mind projects of this type have survived.
• She organised several hustings debate events for Local Elections and national General Election candidates, creating higher profile to mental health through local press coverage and enabling mental health service users to hold their political representatives to account. She and Harrow User Group Representatives were well known by local politicians for asking challenging questions at Council Cabinet meetings and also met with our local MP Gareth Thomas to lobby him about raising questions in Parliament.
Raksha’s fearless and determined campaigning approach extended to the national stage:
• When the Prime Minister David Cameron visited Harrow, she boldly walked up to him and asked when the government will increase funding for mental health services. She then persuaded him to take a selfie with her. The picture went viral featuring in many national online news reports and was Tweeted by the CEO of national Mind. Click here to see the Tweet.
• The User Involvement Project was selected by national Mind to present a petition to Number 10 Downing Street, because Harrow User Group Representatives had collected the most signatories for the petition to government demanding increased funding for mental health services.
• The Harrow User Group was the first to undertake Parliamentary training for citizens to know how to influence the democratic processes of government, such as Commons Select Committees.
• Raksha contacted national Mind and initiated them to present a report to the Commons Equalities Select Committee about Men and Mental Health for which Harrow User Group personal testimonies were referenced as key evidence. Click here to read the report.
• Presentations by Harrow User Group Representatives to the Harrow Safeguarding Board in 2018-2019 so impressed the meeting facilitator, who was a national expert, that she arranged for Raksha and Representatives to present at two national conferences. They spoke about their work in Harrow to engage mental health services users to review and influence NHS and Local Authority safeguarding practices and were recognised as being leaders in this field nationally.
In 2019, her exceptional work as a campaigner and support to the Harrow User Group Representatives was recognised at two events:
• From their own spontaneous wish to express their appreciation for how Raksha, who ‘always had their backs’ as mental health service users, ‘never gave up on them’ and showed love and kindness to each of them individually – the Harrow User Group Representatives arranged a special presentation of a book with text and imagines to be presented at a Forum thanking her for what she had given them. The book described a tree which had been planted to represent their appreciation of her.
• At Mind in Harrow special 50th Anniversary event in December 2019, Raksha was presented with our Lifetime Award which read:
“Thank you for your exceptional impact, campaigning successfully to save the Discretionary Freedom Pass and Council Tax Support and improving mental health services.”
Here are some example pictures of Raksha’s work during her 16 years at Mind in Harrow:
Raksha’s personal qualities
Raksha was a very special person. She was genuine, authentic, down to earth and had a natural ability to develop a rapport with people. Drawing on her own experiences, she enabled vulnerable service users to be seen as themselves, to grow and have opportunities to shine through her support. Service User Representatives have said that she felt like a family member or friend rather than a worker, such was the depth of their connection with her.
She drew immense satisfaction from finding solutions to complex, seemingly hopeless situations which some people faced trying to find help for their mental health. She inspired hope in so many people by challenging cuts to services, poor policies or barriers to help or treatment being provided.
As well as talent, Raksha also had personality in abundance. She had a uniquely creative and regularly complimented dress style often with rings on all her fingers and hat worn at a jaunty angle. She often talked about her enjoyment of perfumes and lipsticks chosen to suit her mood that day. She had a great sense of humour, much needed on difficult days, and wonderfully joyous laugh that carried round the whole office. She was a spiritual person, which undoubtedly gave her more insight and resilience for her work, and had become a committed Roman Catholic.
She was not too keen on paperwork or much order in her work and using computers, particularly spreadsheets, which as her manager was a challenge!
She loved nature and has a beautiful collection of orchids growing by her desk which thrived under her care. She made sure all the plants in our office were regularly watered and was determined that during the government lockdown that the plants would not suffer. A member of staff is watering them every week. She had several cats rescued from difficult circumstances which she loved and looked after with care and devotion. They have all been safely rehomed after she passed away.
Raksha was very modest person and was the last person to recognise her considerable abilities, how much people valued and loved her and how much of a difference she made in the lives of people struggling to cope every day.
As the Chief Executive for 12 years, I have never received so many compliments about a member of staff from service users so grateful for the extraordinary effort and skill which she had shown in supporting them. As her manager for 9 years, it has been privilege to work with and learn from such a special and brightly shining soul.
Other people’s messages about Raksha
Mind in Harrow has received many messages of condolence from NHS and Local Authority senior managers and politicians expressing admiration and respect for Raksha’s dedicated work to improve the lives of people with mental health needs.
I have received also many messages from Harrow User Group Representatives expressing how they feel about Raksha. Here is one example, which I have permission to share:
“Your kindness really touched my heart. I will always remember you with lot of love and fondness. You always had time for me and you were genuinely a lovely person. I will always miss you. May your soul rest in peace and may you be surrounded by angels.”
I have been told a User Representative that Raksha’s name in Sanskrit means: “To protect, defend, fight for others who are unable to defend or advocate for themselves without fear or regard for oneself and with total commitment”. Her name reflects so well her spirit, which has been described as a ‘warrior queen’.
One Harrow User Group Representative has sent me a poem which I feel captures so beautifully how Raksha would want to be remembered.
Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep
(by Mary Elizabeth Frye)
Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.