Galway Community Café — a different approach to out-of-hours mental health support

Galway Community Café's David Bohan, team leader; Rachel Maher, assistant team leader; and Danielle Burke and Olivia Ryder, peer connectors. Photo: Mike Shaughnessy.

Galway Community Café's David Bohan, team leader; Rachel Maher, assistant team leader; and Danielle Burke and Olivia Ryder, peer connectors. Photo: Mike Shaughnessy.

Galway Community Café is a café with a difference. Located in Mr Waffle on Newcastle Road, the premises changes in the evening from a popular dining spot to a much quieter space. Here, anyone who is concerned about their mental health can sit and talk to someone who will understand what they are going through.

The café is run by a small team of people who have been on their own mental health journeys. The service is open to anyone over the age of 18, and the menu features a range of options - customers can ask a question, talk to one of the team of peer connectors who are there to listen, or just have a space to sit quietly, with or without someone for company. Tea, coffee, water, and hot chocolate are also available free of charge.

"People saw the need for a different type of mental health service," explained Danielle Burke, who has been involved in the initiative from the early stages. "We worked for a number of years to have something more community led. Eventually the idea came up to have a community café. There are similar cafés in the UK. People came together through the Galway Local Forum, run by HSE, and put their ideas together and an operational group was formed, including HSE representatives and some lived experience representatives. Together they designed what the café would look like."

The group also visited the Safe Haven Café in Aldershot, UK, during the planning process. This café operates on a similar model, though the Aldershot service is staffed by mental health professionals. What makes the Galway facility unique is its peer-led model - all the staff have used mental health services at some point, and can relate to the service users on a personal level.

"The whole service model was written by people who had experience with services," Danielle, a peer connector at the café, explained. "It wasn't just the HSE saying this is what it's going to be, of course there was that element, but it was written by us.

"Everybody here has some lived experience of mental health difficulties, so we can bring that to the table and we know what it's like. Where relevant we offer parts of ourselves and share things. That does make them feel more comfortable to see we can relate. People say that's so valuable. Nobody is an expert and nobody can fix anybody, we're just here to listen and support."

'A crisis for one person is different to a crisis for another person'

"It's important to remember what the café is, a safe place for someone who is struggling with their emotional health," said David Bohan, team lead at the café. "They can be supported, they can also feel a sense that they're not alone in what they're going through, and that's the unique power of peer support."

The café is open to anyone over the age of 18 in Galway city or county who feels the need for support. People self-refer, and can simply use it as a safe space to sit for a while, or talk to a peer connector about anything that might be troubling them. There is no judgment and no preconceptions.

"You don't have to be in a crisis to come in, you just need to be having a bad day," David explained. "A crisis for one person is different to a crisis for another person. There are a lot of people out there who feel that they don't struggle enough with their mental health to see any mental health services. We meet people where they're at, who are struggling with their emotions.

"One of the main strengths of the café and the team is in supporting somebody before the crisis, that couple of stages before the crisis. That's our real strength, we can give people that time. Nobody likes to be in a crisis situation but they should have a safe place to reach out when they recognise that they're struggling with their mental health."

When the café opened in December 2020 it offered a walk-in service and group activities to help people connect with each other. However the team have had to adapt to meet changing safety requirements as the pandemic evolved. During lockdown, the service was restricted to phone and video calls. The café reopened its doors last May as restrictions eased across the country. Now, as it is classified as a healthcare setting, some rules still apply.

At the moment, people can book a table by phone or online, and use it to talk to a peer connector one-to-one, or just sit in a safe space knowing someone is available to talk to if they need it. While the setting is casual rather than clinical masks are still worn indoors, and numbers are still limited but the team always have a table for someone who needs it.

"At the moment, due to public health guidelines, we still have a booking system in place," David said. "However, you can always phone and make a booking. Our booking system is online at www.galwaycommunitycafé ie. It depends on capacity, at the moment we're still restricted, but we'll always fit them in. People can text or email too.

"Going forward once we know where we're at with this pandemic we'll revert back to the original idea of an open door, but we can't at the moment," he added. "This is a healthcare setting and we take our guidelines from public health."

However the team are keen to return to a drop-in service, and providing opportunities for users to connect with each other through events such as board games evenings and recovery education talks, when the time is right.

"It's important that people who have mental health difficulties and are in isolation can come to a place and start to build connections," David said. "They can connect with people who have similar experiences."

David started in the café as a peer connector - speaking to customers on a one-to-one basis - before becoming team lead, and he sees this individual attention from someone with personal experience as the most important part of the service.

"It's when someone sits down with a peer connector, and they can unravel what's going on in their lives in a safe space, that's the essence of it, that's what important, that people feel their voice is being listened to," he said. "It's different for everybody, some people will read to us or have a conversation, some people will be laughing, it's not all tears."

The team offer people whatever time they need to talk, as well help accessing other services. If someone feels the need to access out of hours medical support, they can help with that too.

"If someone was in a crisis and they felt that they would like to attend A&E, then two members of staff would attend with the person," David said. "Once they are admitted to A&E we will return to the café, but we'll come up with a follow up plan as well. We've also had customers who have felt the need to go A&E, and once they had support from peer connectors, they no longer had the need to go to A&E."

'People can come in for whatever reason they need to, we're just offering the space'

The emotional support provided by peer connectors is a huge part of what the café offers, but practical help is also available in terms of pointing people towards the information and services they need.

"People can come in for whatever reason they need to, we're just offering the space," said Rachel Maher, the café's assistant team lead. "Whether that's signposting, looking for information for another service, we can offer information or brainstorm with them. It's a space to be heard, or have interaction, or get support. It's about giving someone the time and space to be heard, the power that does for someone, that safe space and that time to be themselves."

The café has been busy since it reopened in May, and the numbers of people attending have been going up every month. While it is operating at a reduced capacity there is generally some space available, with about 80 per cent of available tables occupied on a typical evening.

"We have a variety of people coming in from age 18 right up to 60, 70, 80," Rachel said. "We have a variety of demographics, of ages, backgrounds, what people are coming looking to chat about, students, professionals, there are no expectations for anyone walking through that door. There are no preconceptions. It's very varied."

The service has grown in recent months despite the pandemic restrictions, and new peer connectors coming on board has seen the team expand from four to six people.

"I think the atmosphere is fantastic, it's very welcoming," said Olivia Ryder, who joined as a peer connector in November. "I find it fascinating hearing everyone's stories, there are so many similarities yet so many differences. That's what struck me most, similar things trigger so many people."

The café has gone from strength to strength since it opened, and with out-of-hours cafés now provided for in the Government's mental health policy document Sharing the Vision, more are likely to come on stream around the country in the future.

"Obviously this café wouldn't be possible without the support of the HSE, community mental services, and Mental Health Ireland, and the vision of the Local Forum under area lead Maria McGoldrick, and Kevin Nugent from Mr Waffle," David said.

"Danielle, Thom Stewart, and the other forum members had an idea for a peer-run, peer-designed, community café to provide mental health support for people experiencing mental health difficulties prior to cafés being mentioned in Sharing the Vision. They were years ahead of it. The whole idea of the café is an example of being ahead of policy."

Galway Community Café is open Thursday to Sunday from 6.30pm to 8.30pm and 9pm to 11pm. Time slots are available in person at the café, as well as by phone and online via video chat. To book a table or time slot visit galwaycommunitycafé.ie, or call or text 087 108 5134.


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