Honest and open discussions around mental health have been among the most valuable and necessary progressions made by us as a society this decade. We now have an expanding volume of information available to us, helping us to understand the signs, causes and traditional treatments of mental health conditions, allowing us to start the journey towards overcoming our issues.
The next challenge facing our healthcare systems, communities and ourselves will be a move towards well-rounded, diverse and accessible solutions to mental health issues. Our approach to mental health rehabilitation and treatment is something that is long overdue a reform; for all our positive discussion and acknowledgement of these issues, our solutions and treatment options are not paralleled and are far behind where we need them. Mental health is something that has been considered an underfunded, under provisioned area of the NHS, resulting in long waiting lists and individuals struggling to engage with the limited services available. But there are a group of people here in Merseyside whose work has shown that a grassroots, tailored and multifaceted approach to mental health is more than achievable.
The Open Door Centre, one of Wirral’s worst kept secrets, has been challenging our approach and perception of mental health for seven and a half years. Birthed from the determination and imagination of founder Lee Pennington, the charity has grown with the benevolent support from its volunteers and the local community. Its ethos is simple: to provide young people between the ages of 15 and 30 with support if they’re feeling down, stressed, low or anxious – with no waiting lists and no fees. Although that alone may appear novel and groundbreaking, it’s their approach that really offers a sense of excitement and positivity around tackling mental health. The Open Door Centre takes the worlds of culture, community, social action and the arts, and funnels them into one service, helping people to understand and vocalise what they are experiencing through both traditional and non-traditional mediums.
The charity has evolved in recent years, building a network of support through their live events and fundraising; in addition to developing their external support branches, they have also invested in self-sustaining internal support, creating a strong team of staff and volunteers. On the back of developing new partnerships with statutory bodies, The Open Door Centre looks to enter their new chapter, with the aim of finding more innovative ways in reaching a greater number of young adults in Merseyside. Last year they supported 300 with their therapeutic services, this year that is projected to be over 600. This has in part been exercised with the opening of their new multi-purpose venue, Bloom. Tucked away in plain sight, in the shadow of the Cammell Laird shipyard in Birkenhead, the building offers a colourful and creative setting in a repurposed manufacturing premises. Boasting a vibrant and welcoming aura, the building itself is a celebration of colour and expression, clad in a bold and contemporary design.
Upon entry, Bloom is more akin to some of the creative spaces around the Baltic Triangle, than of a treatment or clinical space. But there is more warmth, the aesthetic is not just for show, it’s a well-rounded reflection of the energy, inspiration and expression of everyone involved at the charity. As I enter the building, on my way to chat to Lee and the team, I’m welcomed with the pacifying and disarming feel of the building; the smoky burn of the wood fire in the corner backdrops the coffee and lounge area, while the soft hum of music filters in above. There are no white walls, no receptionists, nor people in lab coats flicking between treatment rooms. The front of the building comprises a communal area, music venue and cafe, while towards the back, neat wooden sheds and breakout spaces are the locus for the charity’s private consultation and meeting rooms.
The incorporation of mental health within Bloom is subtle; it’s rooted within the foundations and softly woven into everything they do. What you see and feel is an expressive celebration of culture, arts and community. Nevertheless, there are direct and immediate resources on hand to help people quickly and easily address their mental health concerns. Adele Iddison, the charity’s coordinator, describes one of their therapy programmes and key resources, an interactive Computerised Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CCBT) tool called Bazaar: A Marketplace For The Mind. “The programme is bespoke to people between the ages of 15 and 30,” Adele tells me. “It has all the principles of CBT as a therapeutic intervention applied to a computer programme, but the crucial thing is you don’t go through this on your own – you will be paired up with a mentor. This is someone of similar age and character, and it’s all about that relationship, and that interaction with someone that creates a unique mode of therapy, with a computer-based intervention.”
The eight weekly sessions are delivered by the centre’s many mentors in their treatment sheds, which offer a relaxed setting, neither claustrophobic nor foreboding, but casual and disarming. The mentors are made up of volunteers, these are often people who have either been through the programme themselves or have perhaps had personal experience with mental health issues, among individuals looking for a career in mental health or opportunities in the sector. “Anyone from the community, who’d like to get involved with volunteering can come and get in touch with us,” says Greg Edwards, the centre’s operations manager. Training is given to people aspiring to be a mentor and is made up of group workshops and one to one training.
Mya Higginson, one of the centre’s ambassadors and mentors, tells me how the mentoring programme can be beneficial to both the participant of the programme and the mentor themselves: “It has given me great structure, and has been a great opportunity to meet other people, I believe it made me more confident. Emotionally, I’ve gotten just as much out of mentoring than those going through the programme as a member.” This type of relationship helps breed the self-sustaining and cooperative environment that runs through the charity.
Joel Dipple, Bloom Coffee coordinator, also remarked on the nurturing environment. “I’ve seen it from an outsider’s point of view. I joined a month ago, it’s amazing to see the work that these guys have done, and how rewarding it is for them when people come in and get involved with the mentor scheme and develop. It’s a great energy and its amazing to now be part of that team.” Joel’s role is to oversee the communal café and venue space, anyone can come and visit without enrolling or directly involving themselves with any of the services, it can simply act as a relaxing place to sit and have a coffee.
The cafe area doubles as a live music and events space, which is a marked escalation of The Open Door Centre’s healthy involvement, and support for, the region’s music and arts community. The ODC ran the successful music festival Astral Coast between 2012 and 2014, bringing a host of musicians to New Brighton’s Floral Pavilion, including Bill Ryder-Jones. They have since been involved in the run of shows at Fresh Goods Studio in Birkenhead, showing that their commitment to music runs deep. The charity uses opportunities like these to help inspire discussion around mental health, creating a culture of tolerance among young people with regards to them tackling and expressing themselves. Their new space will allow future live events to be held on site and, aside from the music, Bloom will also host mindfulness classes, dance therapy, visual arts workshops and origami as the centre continues to find ways of connecting directly with people via music and arts.
There has been an organic growth to the charity; the hard work the team have put in has been replicated by the many volunteers and attendees who are now involved. A healthy relationship with the local community, across public, private and third sectors has also helped the centre to blossom – it regularly receives referrals from GPs and social services, helping to define it as a formal and established mental health service.
Greg explains that due to the sustainability and support within the charity, it’s free and immediately accessible, which is something that can inspire mental health services going forward: “None of this is radical, but it is radical compared to where it sits against what mental health services are available at the moment. Hopefully we can make a change to where there isn’t negativity around inaccessibility and waiting lists.”
The Open Door Centre is not stopping here; boosted by various funders who are wholeheartedly engaged in this cause and the development of their new premises, the charity will look to expand and reach out to more people looking for an engaging way to tackle and understand their mental health. Greg declares they will continue to build upon the elements that define them: “Support for people who are struggling, training for people who want to get involved and social action and culture. It’s not just art for art’s sake, it’s art for a purpose, to bring about change and to engage people who would otherwise be disengaged from traditional avenues of support.”