Few would argue that mental health is one of the biggest issues facing the north west and one group of local people with first hand experience of such difficulties have decided to take action to help others.
The local people have come together to set up Project H.O.P.E. which over recent months has opened a new, confidential Drop-In facility in a central location at the bottom of Clarendon Street in Derry city centre.
“There are no appointments here,” says James Breslin, Secretary of Project H.O.P.E., which stands for ‘Hold On Pain Ends’.
“Anyone can just walk in and it’s open to everyone regardless of age, gender, religion or sexual orientation.
“We are not professionals; we are here just for a chat, for befriending and signposting. We have leaflets and cards if people need them.”
The local charity is one of several which can be traced back to the long-standing and ongoing grass roots campaign across the city and region for crisis mental health facilities and counselling services.
It developed out of the project H.O.P.E. Facebook page set up by Nancy Dougherty, with other local people coming on board as it evolved. “We have suffered with mental health in the past,” says James. “Everybody was on different mental health groups on Facebook and we all joined up on this one.
“We all have had issues in the past and basically everybody we know has, or has been touched by it. We thought ourselves there wasn’t really enough in the town for us or for other people. We know people affected by suicide, anxiety and depression and we thought if we had somewhere to go, other people could go there too, so this happened.
“Nancy mentioned a plan for five years time and to get everybody training and counsellors on board. Two people out of the group Melissa Hargan and Clare Webb then seen this office was to let and they went ahead and got it. We had a good opportunity and we had to jump on it.
“We came in here in May and it was basically whatever we had with us. The people that own the building helped us out and we brought our laptops and whatever we had from home.”
Project H.O.P.E. now has around a dozen committee members and other volunteers and is seeking other volunteers, particularly people with personal experience of mental health issues themselves.
Gerry Webb, Project H.O.P.E. Chair and Treasurer, said: “We also have a Foyle Search & Rescue volunteer and a counselling graduate who is volunteering with the charity.
“We have linked in with different services around this area and a couple of online services, just to say ‘We are here’ and we have had an Open Day Coffee Morning and another Coffee Morning around Hallowe’en. It’s still about getting the name out there.”
Gerry said that the fact they were not professionals, just ordinary people with personal experience, meant that the befriending and listening ear service offered by Project H.O.P.E. put them and the people coming to see them on a level par. “You can sit and have a chat like you are talking to a friend- that was the main focus on it,” he said. “We have tea and coffee, biscuits, buns, and people can just come in for a chat.
“We do the Banquet & Bowls at the Bowling Alley once a month just to get people together and have a bit of craic. Then we are doing a weekly lunch where we go somewhere different each week to get people together and out of the house.
“We are hoping to plan some courses and events for service users, the likes of meditation classes, cookery classes, book clubs, looking at developing allotments, craft classes and a support group.”
James adds: “We thought if we have people coming in that know that there are people in here that have been through the same thing, or a similar thing, it will be easier for them to come in, rather than maybe going to see a counsellor. I was deterred by that myself the fact that you have to go see a counsellor or a psychiatrist. Most of the people who come in have said the same, they find it easier. It’s like calling to the house but in an office. That’s what we wanted at the start. It’s working both ways, it is helping us as well.”
The committee and volunteers, some of whom also work full-time, are all voluntary and are keen to see others come on board.
“We are looking for more volunteers, preferably people who have experience and are empathetic with regards mental health themselves,” James said.
To date Project H.O.P.E.’s committee and volunteers have helped people from a diverse range of backgrounds and ages who have come to see them, and has resulted in positive changes for in the lives of local people.
“There’s days in here you could hardly move there was that many people in. That was from the Facebook Group and word of mouth, people telling others when we opened they could actually call in.”
The group have also made maximum use of social media and along with the Facebook page, there is also Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter profiles.
Keen to advance their own skills, the volunteers are undertaking various training courses in counselling and other skills.
And they urged anyone out there suffering with mental health issues to come along and see them.
“Don’t be apprehensive because there is more than likely someone here with some kind of similar experience and nobody in here judges because we have all been through the same thing with mental health problems,” James said.
Gerry adds: “We don’t think we have all the answers. Although we are here for everybody, we are not afraid to say if we can’t give you the help you need we will signpost you and get you to someone else who can because our focus is you, not us.”
*Project H.O.P.E. is based on the ground floor of Clarendon Business Centre, 7 Clarendon Street in Derry city centre and is open for anyone to call in from 10am to 5.30pm Monday to Friday and on Saturdays 3pm to 6pm.
You can also contact them via Facebook on www.facebook.com/supportlifetogether Alternatively you can find them on Twitter @projecthope16, Snapchat ‘ProjectHopeDerr’ or ring the landline on 028 71361220.