Aware NI's new Lisburn Support Group offers safe haven for locals suffering from anxiety and depression

As children as young as five are presenting in Emergency Departments in Northern Ireland with mental health issues, we speak to Kate Richardson, Communications Officer at Aware NI, about depression and anxiety and ''whole life'' mental health support as locals are welcomed to Lisburn's Support Group.

The World Health Organisation states depression is the ‘’leading cause of disability in the world’’ and affects an estimated 350 million people worldwide.

With this sobering statistic in mind, Aware NI has employed three new community outreach workers across Northern Ireland in a bid to further connect with the local community and get their vital message across that there is help for those suffering with depression and anxiety.

''It is an unbelievable statistic, and one which I think is quite shocking to people. I think it shows you how many people suffer in silence,'' says Kate Richardson, Communications Officer at Aware NI.

Aware Support Group

''Depression is so common, especially in Northern Ireland where our depression rate is 25 per cent higher than the rest of the UK - and yet our mental health services get the least funding out of all the UK nations. That is why Aware NI exists and why we offer local support groups to help those in need.''

The charity, which was founded over 25 years ago as one small support group in a kitchen in Derry, now hosts 30 support groups across Northern Ireland in total, including a group in Lisburn which meets each Thursday at Bridge Community Centre at 7.30pm. These support groups are a key source of socialisation and support network for those suffering from depression.

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''Where we cannot reach people online, they are going into our local communities where we are setting up the community support groups and are helping to get the message across that these support groups are available. They are also taking stands at different local events and drawing awareness to depression.

Aware NI teaches mindfulness in primary schools and believes in a ''whole life'' approach to mental health

''This is especially vital in rural areas, as farmers are at extremely high-risk of mental ill-health and are difficult to reach online. It is almost going back to 'old-school' marketing.''

Kate adds: ''Anybody can come along to our local support groups, you do not have to have a clinical diagnosis of depression. They are for people with depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder, but anyone who feels like they are struggling can come along.

''You don't have to talk, you can just come along and listen. It is all about just being with other people who know what you are going through and sharing experiences and coping mechanisms. The meetings are are so powerful and impact people's lives.

''If you are living with depression, your main instinct can be to withdraw. But what you need is social interaction and a lot of our service users love the social aspect of it and they have a laugh. As much as they talk about their lows, they really have a giggle together as well.''

Kate Richardson and Cherry Cantrell from AWARE at Conway Mill

And whilst the stigma surrounding ill-mental health may have improved considerably in recent times, Aware NI supports the recent Mental Health Strategy published by Health Minister Robin Swann which pledges commencing mental health awareness and education in primary school.

''We have come a long way from even the generation before us where depression was an illness talked about in whispers,'' says Kate.

''There was a real stigma around it but we have made amazing progress since then.

''But it is only now being talked about in schools. This is great, but it really needs to start from primary school age - and whilst the Mental Health Strategy published by the Health Minister is now looking at the whole school and whole life approach, the question remains - how can we get messages of mental health awareness out into the community, how can we get it into the primary schools?

Aware NI hosts a weekly Support Group in Lisburn which meets each Thursday at Bridge Community Centre at 7.30pm

''Aware NI are very much supportive of the 'whole life' approach, and have Mindfulness programmes which we deliver to primary school children in P6 and P7 which is about learning from a young age to recognise emotions and to be able to regulate them. We also have programmes for secondary school children and adults and in later years.''

Aware NI also has an annual poetry competition for primary school children which encourages pupils to write poems about how they are feeling, which introduces conversations about mental health into classrooms.

''The response from teachers is excellent,'' says Kate. ''There is very much an awareness now across the board that we need to be talking to our children about mental health.

''We are unfortunately seeing kids coming into our emergency departments with mental health issues as young as five and that is really scary.

''It is shocking and something the government needs to look at. We have the strategy but we need the Executive to reform and fund it - that is the big priority.''

Meanwhile, with loneliness and financial concerns amongst some of the leading factors for depression and anxiety, Kate explains she fears we are yet to see the true extent of the current staggering cost of living crisis.

Some of the Aware NI team, Derry

''We saw a massive increase in the demand for our services during and post-pandemic. We saw people who had maybe never suffered from depression or anxiety before who were suddenly isolated. For the people who did experience anxiety and depression, it was very much exacerbated by the effects of the pandemic due to the loneliness and isolation which we know lead to depression.

''The cost of living crisis I think we will see next year, we are going to see that in the winter. It is my belief that Lifeline, the suicide and mental health helpline, were training energy companies in how to take crisis calls because people were calling energy companies in complete despair at the cost of their bills.

''I think the cost of living crisis is going to put a strain on an already under-funded mental health service here.

''We need the Executive to come back, we need the funding and we need the comprehensive Mental Health Strategy to be implemented.''

The Lisburn Support Group is open for new members. New members who are interested in attending can contact: [email protected]

''After you email us an Aware NI support services team member will give you a call and have a chat with you and talk you through what happens in a support group.

''This is because it can feel so scary coming to a group for the first time. A lot of our service users say the scariest part is actually walking through the door. One member told me that they came to the group in Newry six times before he made it through the front door.

''But they all say that whilst the first time can feel very daunting, they never regret it and the rest is history!

''So please anyone who is interested in coming, please email our team and they will ring you and have a chat to make you feel at ease and get you along.''

There are loads of ways to get involved with fundraising for Aware NI, with several events coming up this summer. Visit: aware-ni.org/fundraise to find out more.

''Meanwhile, Aware NI are actively recruiting volunteers in the role of support group facilitators.

''All of our support groups are ran by trained volunteers, loads of them have personal experience with depression but that is not necessary, you just have to be compassionate and want to do the role,'' Kate explains.

''Aware NI gives the training, and you just need to be available either weekly or fortnightly depending on the group. If you are interested please contact: [email protected]''

As well as the local Support Groups across Northern Ireland, Aware NI offers mental health training courses and workshops which teach people the basics of mental health; such as how to look after it and advice on taking a preventative approach to mental ill-health. These are available to all and are available on the Aware NI website and are completely free to attend, with both online and face-to-face options available. Find out more about Aware NI and its services and resources at: aware-ni.org.

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