The Next Step is a charity based in Cork, Ireland that provides a range of activities and workshops for people with experience of mental health difficulties. In this guest blog, founder and chair Vincent Murphy talks about the experience of setting up and developing a small charity.
A casual meeting over coffee sometime in the Autumn of 2009 with an old friend led to a discussion about the need for a space for people who had experienced mental health difficulties. Many meetings over coffee, discussions of options, and a search for funds culminated on 27th April 2011: a two-hour art class, one day a week for 10 weeks at the Camden Palace Hotel community art centre in Cork, led by professional artist Charlotte Donovan and funded by Cork City Council. It went well and our ten participants responded positively. Many said that it became a focal point of their week, something to look forward to. The Next Step was up and running.
Over time, Charlotte felt 2 hours was not enough, that she didn’t have enough time to get around to everyone. We agreed that a full day programme would be desirable. We were fortunate in securing the funds. In September 2011 we moved to a half-day session. By January 2012 we were operating a full day each week.
We have gradually increased the scope of activities provided. By September 2012 we were operating 2 days a week, including one ‘self-managed’ day (less costly!). Over time we managed to secure the necessary funding to add further activities including wood-craft, creative writing, mindfulness, singing, dance, yoga, knitting and crafts to the point where we now operate 5 days a week. In 2015 the Camden Palace Hotel arts centre closed. We were fortunate enough to be able to relocate to the Unitarian Church in the city centre.
We are a volunteer run organisation, we have no permanent paid staff. While we do pay facilitators to run various activities, some activities are facilitated by people who initially came as participants and who now offer their services as volunteers. With growth (and the introduction of charity regulation in Ireland), came the need for more structure. We are now a registered charity. We have adopted the ‘Governance Code’ for voluntary and sporting organisations. Our accounts and annual reports are available on our website.
We consult regularly with participants, letting them know what we are doing and seeking feedback. We have recently had a request for an activity for younger participants – particularly in the 18 to 25 bracket. Some participants are working on this and we hope to have a proposal which we can implement in 2018.
We have been fortunate in being able to receive adequate funding. This has come from a number of different funders over the year. We now get 50% from the HSE (the Health Service Executive in Ireland) and a further 15% from small weekly contributions from participants. The balance comes from grant fundraising.
Are participants benefiting from The Next Step?
People who experience depression, mental health and emotional difficulties may not be able to work and may have to live on state benefits. The health system can rely more on medication than on counselling and therapy. The Next Step hoped to provide some small relief in their lives, hoping that through attendance at our workshops and activities, in a safe and welcoming environment they might improve self-confidence and self-esteem, the better able thereby to engage with friends, family and the wider community. We were aware from the outset that there was good evidence for the benefit of art in fostering good mental health. In 2011 a report ‘Beyond Diagnosis - the transformative potential of the arts in mental health recovery’ was published by a research team into a HSE ‘Arts + Minds’ group project. Among its findings were:
Beyond Diagnosis found that the arts in mental health are a tool to recognise people’s resourcefulness and multiple skills, which are often lost when they become ‘patients’ in a mental health service.
The Arts + Minds Research Project provides clear evidence of the value of the arts in mental health in promoting individual wellbeing, recovery-oriented practice and social inclusion for people experiencing mental health difficulties.
We have sought feedback from participants on a number of occasions. The following is a sample of comments received:
In a quiet space in the middle of the city there exists The Next Step, a little bit of magic, a place where all this happens:
...“expression, exploring, acceptance”... ...“renaissance”... ...“exploring art + enjoying it”... ...“A place to enrich my spirit”... ...“It allows me to express myself in colour”...
We are a collective of individuals who come together and find a friendly welcome and a space to let the creativity within find expression. In other words: we paint, we draw, we print, we learn techniques; we chat, we sew, we make, we grow; we dabble, we think, we laugh, we drink (tea + coffee!). We sing, we dance, we meditate; we come and go, let ideas flow, we feel supported, enriched, safe, encouraged. Sometimes we’re just messin’ - but that’s OK, ‘cos there’s no ‘right’ way! We’re just free to explore once we walk in that door, and we can leave it all behind, ease our troubled minds and enter a small piece of heaven. Let’s hope it lasts for ever.
I was referred to this service at a time in my life when I was recovering from mental distress, and it proved invaluable to me. Through it I made wonderful friends and developed my skills as an artist and writer. I have learned so much along the way about the creative process, about life and about myself. Just watching people flourish in the group has been an incredible experience.
All this feedback is very heartening and makes us aware of what an important and worthwhile place in people's lives The Next Step is.
While the perception for many might be that a small charity is all about raising money and addressing funding challenges, our experience is that there is a great deal more involved. The Next Step has dealt with changing regulation, measuring our impact, adapting to changing circumstances and even addressing venue concerns. We are currently involved in developing a 5 year strategy, with the help of an external facilitator. We hope we can continue and grow.