‘Empathy Tent’ providing support for Derry dads

The Dads Project, an initiative by Parenting NI, have set up an ‘Empathy Tent’ along the quay in Derry to help dads and other men open up and talk.

By Daire Ní Chanáin
Wednesday, 15th June 2022, 2:42 pm

The tent is located beside Sainsburys and is open every day this week, from 10am-1pm and 6pm-9pm, as part of Mens Mental Health Week. The Dads Project are also organising a Dads Walk on Saturday, June 18.

Cahir Murray, coordinator of the Dads Project in Parenting NI said: “Much of the work we do in Parenting NI and working with dads is supporting dads emotionally and socially. We have been working online for the past few years with Covid so we decided to try bring dads together as part of Mens Mental Health Week but also for Fathers Day on Sunday. What we decided to do was organise a dads walk where we’re bringing dads together with grandads, big brothers, role models at home and foster parents, step parents, gay parents, everyone. We’re bringing dads to meet with one another, person to person.

“We’re meeting here at Sainsbury’s on Saturday, June 18 at 10am and we’ll walk the two bridges. After we set that up, we thought it would be great to take what we’re doing and give it to dads, rather than asking them to come to us. One of our dads, Alan Prenter, came up with the idea, along with Oliver, of an empathy tent. The idea is to understand and walk in the footprints of dads when they’re going through things. Rather than us expecting dads to come to us, we put it up somewhere public where dads, and mums if they want to engage too, can come along and chat to us. They can talk about football, about stars, about their family, their kids, whatever they would like to. When you engage with men, they will open up to you but sometimes you have to engage. The empathy tent is open, people can see what it is, it’s clear and it’s inviting. The chairs are in an open circle so men are looking at each other but they can also look elsewhere. It’s not closed in so people don’t feel trapped, although many of the conversations happen just outside the tent!

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Oliver McLaughlin, a member of the Dads Project Steering Group with Cahir Murray, coordinator of the Dads Project in Parenting NI, at the Empathy Tent along the quay. The tent is there every day this week to provide support for dads and anyone else who needs it.

“This is day three now and we’re here from 10am-1pm and from 6pm-9pm. We have had mums, couples, groups of walkers, and older people talking about a wide range of things. When you look at the benefit of that, it’s about breaking down barriers and telling men that it’s okay to talk. Even if you’re talking to a stranger, you can still have a conversation. With Oliver, myself and other volunteers who will be here during the week, we want men to know that we can engage with them and they can sit comfortably and safely and realise that it’s good to talk.

“Men generally avoid services. They often feel that they’ll be stigmatised and men often don’t know what services are available unless there’s a crisis. If you provide something that’s open like this and public, it’s not about sitting down and having a really private conversation but it’s about connecting with them and letting them realise that they’re not alone. That’s very important.

“The Dad’s Project works particularly with separated men and, with lots of those men, there’s issues with the emotional side of a relationship breaking down and trying to come to terms with that, which can be quite daunting at times. At Parenting NI, we work with one service called Dads Talk, where men come as a community online and talk about anything. That’s very empowering for them that they meet with other men and feel supported. They feel they’re talking with other people who understand what they’re going through and they then give back, to new members that come along, the same support they got at the start.”

One of those dads who is now giving back is Oliver McLaughlin. Oliver first went to the Dads Project over four years ago and now volunteers with the Dads Project Steering Group to help support other dads.

He said: “The amount of support that I’ve gotten from the group has been immense. When I first met Cahir, I didn’t know where to look for help and I was in a very bad place mentally. I found counselling through another service but I met Cahir and talked to other fathers who were talking about things they were going through. I found other people who were going through the same thing I was going through and it really, really helped. I didn’t know anyone else who was going through the same thing as me. There was a man came last night and he stayed outside the tent at first. He didn’t even want to sit down. By the end, he was sitting and chatting and said he would love to come and do the call every week. A wee bit of support, being listened to and that understanding goes such a long way.
“The way I look at it, if I can give back a wee bit of the help I got at the start, I want to be involved. That’s why I’m here. When you reach out for the first time and you get something back, that’s what helps you. It’s been an immense support for me and I know I’m in a far better place mentally now than I ever was. It’s a journey you have to take and it’s slow but you’ll get there.

“The first step is the hardest step but once you’re in that meeting, everything gets easier. Everything you say is confidential, you are put in a safe, secure place straight away. Most people don’t say anything in the first meeting but you can see them in the second or third meeting dying to talk. It just takes a meeting or two to get them to open up and then, after that, there’s some people you can’t stop!”

Cahir added: “Relationships do break down so many of the dads will come to us through a referral or through a self referral. They might hear about us and pick up the phone to call our support line or send an email. Whenever a dad comes along, one of the things we do is connect with that dad on a one to one basis so that we can hear any concerns he may have about speaking to a professional. With dads, it’s about creating a relationship and building the trust before he can take the next step. Here at the dads project, we’re all about relationship building. Then, the dads who come along and stay, they start building up relationships with other dads. Oliver now supports the work we do with other dads and he would be able to give advice to dads, greet dads and share his story to ensure people feel safe if they want to talk about things too. It’s about telling men that it’s good to talk. It’s difficult to take that first step but when you do, you don’t feel as if you are on your own. It’s not about having the male ego and saying you can fix everything because sometimes you cant. It’s better not to wait until there’s a crisis before you reach out. If you know by visiting the tent here and chatting with ourselves that there’s other services available, at least you’re forearmed in case anything were to happen down the line. The modern man is someone who can open up and be emotional, recognise that he has weaknesses. Talking is a big strength. It’s something that we try to encourage.”

More information on the Dads Project can be found at www.parentingni.org/parents/dads-project and anyone looking for support can call 0808 8010 722 or email [email protected]

*Anyone in distress in NI can contact Lifeline 24/7 helpline can be contacted for free on 0808 808 8000 in confidence; The Samaritans can be contacted 24/7 on 02871 265511 or Freephone 116 123 in confidence; Children can contact Childline 24 hours a day, 365 days a year on 0800 1111 for any issue or by visiting www.childline.org.uk in confidence.

Anyone in distress in RoI can contact Pieta House free on 1800 247 247 or text HELP to 51444; TEXT Crisis Textline Ireland on 50808 - a free 24/7 text service; Ring Samaritans 24/7 on freephone number 116-123.