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Keeping on top of your mental health with Sheffield Flourish

We spoke to Jo Eckersley from mental health charity Sheffield Flourish on the importance of sharing your stories.

Can you give our readers a brief history of Sheffield Flourish and the work you do?
We were founded in 2012 by a group of friends who were passionate about mental health, both because of their own lived experiences and because of working in the field. Our aim is to nurture the talents, insights and skills already in the community, and one of the way we do this is through our community enterprises. We support six enterprises which are semi-independent. They are mental health friendly but not mental health focused, so their focuses are: music, football, gardening and growing, art, writing, and theatre. Our creative arts group CAST is entirely volunteer-led, and has been running since 2010 with an annual exhibition. Last year they produced artwork for HSBC’s new Sheffield HQ. Each week we have at least seven free sessions taking place across the city where people can meet new people and develop their skills and interests. But we recognise that there can be massive barriers to getting down to a new group when you’re struggling with your mental health. For this reason, in 2016 we launched the Sheffield Flourish website, a hub which now hosts over 300 honest, funny, and creative stories by local people who have experienced difficulties and distress. Through the website people can read stories they can relate to, can feel proud of the struggles they have managed through, and can learn more about mental health.

In 2017 we started delivering the Sheffield Mental Health Guide, a website and phone line commissioned by Sheffield city council to support local people to find the right service for them. We built the website in collaboration with our community, which meant it really reflected their needs, and launched the new site in 2018. Later that year, we worked with former Lord Mayor Magid Magid on an event where we asked people what we could do collectively to help prevent suicide in Sheffield. One of the key things people said they wanted was a digital resource to signpost them to the right support, so in 2019, on World Suicide Prevention Day, we launched another new website: sheffieldsuicidesupport.co.uk. Finally, this year we launched My Toolkit, which is a really beautifully simple website where you can plan activities to help feel good day to day.

How did you get involved with Sheff Flourish?
I got involved through seeing a job application four years ago, when our charity was much smaller. I saw a job description and was basically like: this is the perfect job. On interview day this was all confirmed, the people I met were all genuinely really passionate about mental health, and about supporting others to recognise their talents and strengths. And they had some really good ideas about how to do this.

It’s been a proper privilege to see the charity grow over those four years. I’ve met a whole load of people who’ve been through really difficult life experiences, and have taken those experiences and decided they want to help others, and to share what they learnt along the way. Like everyone, I’ve struggled with my mental health. What’s really helped in those difficult times is to have a community around me of people who care about the same things, and who really want to make a difference.

Sharing stories seems to be quite important to the charity, how important is it to open up and discuss experiences?
I can’t speak for everyone, but in my experience a simple chat can be seriously powerful. I think there’s a few reasons it is so meaningful. Firstly, when we’re struggling it can be really shame-inducing. You can feel like there’s something wrong with you for feeling how you feel. But so often when we do finally say something, we realise that actually we’re not alone in feeling that way. It can be a huge relief. And that brings me on to the second point, when we discuss our experiences, especially with someone who can relate, we know we’re not alone, and they might even be able to give us some clues for finding a way forward. Anyway, I think the community speaks better than me on this:
“Seeing individual testaments / creative outlets on the site really makes me feel positive about living with my mental health.”
“I have learnt through the Flourish groups, meetings and writing on the website that I am not unique in my experiences of depression and fears. It helps me to feel accepting of myself, helps me to be less judgemental about myself.”

How have you adapted to the Coronavirus situation?
Delivering the Sheffield Mental Health Guide day to day means we are one of the main information providers for mental health in the city. Since the lockdown began, we’ve been proactively working to make sure as many people as possible know what support is out there for them. Our signposting phone line is open during normal working hours on 0114 273 7009, or mhguide@sheffieldflourish.co.uk. We’ve got a full list of what mental health support is currently available on the Sheffield Mental Health Guide, under the tab ‘Covid-19’.

Our enterprise groups and sessions have moved to online, but we wanted to give something more (especially as some of our community don’t use digital). So, over the last few weeks we’ve begun delivering art and seed packs to our community. The art packs are available for anyone to download online at: sheffieldflourish.co.uk/news/art-packs-for-the-community. We’re hoping to get some extra funding in so we can post the full art packs out to anyone who might want one (and I’m really pleased we’ve already had a really kind sponsorship offer from an individual). We’ve also been running a programme of online games twice a week, from bingo to kahoots, to keep people busy.

If someone reading this is struggling with their mental health, what would you say to help them?
“You are clearly going through a really difficult time. I want you to know you are not alone, though. There are people in your life who care about you, even if it’s hard to believe that right now. There are also people across this city who have been through these incredibly difficult times too, and who have come out the other side.

“How have you coped with this situation up to now? What strategies have you used to help manage? A lot of the people we talk to find it can be really helpful to think about the times when things have been just a little bit easier, and work out what has made those times easier (a funny TV programme, a pet, some nice food, a friend, whatever it might be).” FYI I’m not a mental health practitioner, it’s worth mentioning. These are just the things I’d say as one human being to another!

Could you briefly run us through your community enterprises and their purpose?
Within the city, we support six community enterprises who run regular sessions which are open to everyone:
• Brunsmeer Awareness FC – a mental health-friendly football team.
• CAST – a creative arts group who run art and creative writing groups.
• Connected Worlds – an art-based project which runs courses designed to build communities and solidarity.
• Flippin’ Mental Theatre – a theatre company set up by Kathryn Littlewood, author of mental health autobiography Cultivating Madcow.
• Oasis – they run weekly vegetable growing sessions, and eat the food they grow together. Their work is funded by the Oasis Gardening Service, available for hire!
• Open Door Music – a music group for people to learn and develop their skills and interests. This includes music production, jam sessions with instruments, and a singing group.

Do you have any tips for staying on top of your health during lockdown?
I’ve done a video sharing my own ideas here: sheffieldflourish.co.uk/news/coping-during-covid-wellbeing-ideas-from-jo. And we’ve also made a blog with ideas for staying busy at home: sheffieldflourish.co.uk/news/coronovirus-things-to-do-in-your-sheffield-homes. Generally a routine is really helpful. Would really recommend using our new website, My Toolkit, as a way to plan out the things you’d like to do to feel good during this time: toolkit.sheffieldmentalhealth.co.uk.

Generally speaking, what do you think of local government and central government’s approach to mental health?
It’s great that more and more politicians are saying the right things: that mental health is as important as physical health, and that we need to do more across the board to support people. Over the last few years politicians and the policies have started to recognise the importance of community activities like ours in supporting people’s mental health. ‘Social prescribing’ – where people are referred from the NHS to non-clinical sessions like ours – is a real buzzword and rightly so.

But the NHS is really, really stretched, which means that people in need of real clinical help are ending up being supported by community organisations. Central government need to put more funding in to mental health, this couldn’t be clearer. Another issue is local authorities have lost a great deal of their own funding over the last few years. This means people with complex needs are falling through the cracks, and ending
up in crisis, which is an additional strain on the NHS.

If you want to donate, volunteer or seek help with Sheffield Flourish, head over to sheffieldflourish.co.uk. Alternatively you can call 0114 273 7009 or the emergency Sheffield helpline on 0808 801 0440 or email info@sheffieldflourish.co.uk.




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