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INTERVIEW: Sele Farm community group tackles the stigma of mental ill health

10 May 2022

At Network Homes, we understand the importance of tackling the stigma around mental ill health by having honest and open conversations. That’s why we’re supporting Mix Cafe, a community group run by a resident at the Sele Community Hub in Hertford. The group meet every Thursday and it’s a safe space to connect with people and talk openly about mental ill health, whilst enjoying refreshments, games and entertainment. Our Mental Health Liaison Officer Tanya is there every week to join the conversation and provide an opportunity for local residents to find out more about our Mental Health Liaison team.

For Mental Health Awareness Week we spoke to Mix Cafe founder Michael Newman, who recently received funding to continue running the group from East Herts Council’s fund for community organisations and individuals. This fund provides grants for projects which aim to create stronger, more connected communities, leading to improved health and wellbeing for residents in East Herts. Michael told us about why he set up Mix Café, the impact it’s had so far and his commitment to tackling the loneliness and the stigma around mental ill health in Sele Farm and beyond.

What led you to set up Mix Cafe?

Michael outside Sele Community Hub with Mix Cafe postersI’ve been a been a Network Homes resident for over 26 years and first came to Hertford 45 years ago. I’ve had quite a chequered past with mental ill health myself which I’m not ashamed of. I have bipolar disorder and have dealt with substance abuse issues but I have been clean for 16 months now.

I set up the group because the community has been crying out for something like this. In the area, there used to be community centres which were really popular spaces for local people to come together, but they have since been shut down. I realised that the only time I got to see people who were going through similar mental health struggles was at the local Community Mental Health clinic. There was no way to connect with local community members and talk about these issues, so when I found out about the Sele Community Hub, I decided to look into opening a group there to get more people talking.

More and more people are suffering with their mental health, especially after the pandemic and several lockdowns. Some people are incredibly socially isolated, sat at home staring at four walls all day and some people are frightened to leave the house. This support group gives people within the community a safe haven to be heard and listened to so they can feel less alone. Through the group, I have been able to connect with people who were at first hesitant to get involved and open up, but now they’re vocal and active members of the group.

Why is it important that we connect with people in our local community and have these conversations about mental ill health?

I’m all about putting an end to stigma around mental ill health and that’s what these conversations can do. For so long, there has been such a negative perception of people with certain conditions. The media often portray people with mental ill health as dangerous and violent which is so wrong. People can be so quick to judge and say horrible things about those of us suffering with our mental health, so I often challenge this and point out when people are being insensitive. When I speak up on these issues, it is partly based on my own experience with mental ill health. It is also on behalf of people in the community who don’t have the confidence or ability to speak up for themselves. I want to challenge negative stereotypes and provide a safe space for anyone wanting to talk about mental ill health, and ensure people with these issues are treated like human beings.

How have you worked with Network Homes to keep Mix Cafe going?

Network Homes have bent over backwards to provide ongoing support during my difficult times. They gave me food vouchers during the pandemic when I was struggling and helped me move into my home. They didn’t hang me out to dry after initially helping me, the support has been very reliable. The Mental Health Liaison team embraced my plans to open the group and arranged for me to run the weekly meetings at the Community Hub. They recently helped me apply for a grant from East Herts Council to keep the group going, which I was successfully awarded. They have been like a breath of fresh air for me when I’ve been down on my luck, and I cannot fault the support I’ve received from them.

How has running the Mix Café helped you personally?

Michael at the Sele Farm community hub which is decorated with Mix Cafe posters

The group has made me confident that I’ve found my true vocation: helping my fellow human beings. It’s been great to focus my efforts on the people I’m trying to help and spending my time planning each group meeting and getting the refreshments in order.

I’ve used local mental health services a lot over the years during my mental ill health, so I see this as a way for me to give back to the community that has supported me so much. The whole plan behind the group is that if I can save one person from being alone or reaching the point that they want to take their own life, then it is all worthwhile.

What more could be done to support people with mental health issues at a local level?

I do think that the Mix Cafe group is a great step towards this. My overall plea though, is for people with mental ill health to be listened to more.

What does the future hold for the Mix Cafe group?

The grant from East Herts Council means that I can run the group for 12 more weeks which is great news. There has been lots of encouragement from the community to continue the Mix Cafe which I am very grateful for. Thanks goes to Caroline Redfern, Peter Ruffles, Mary Brady from East Herts Council, Kim Hale at the Co-Operative and Tanya-Marie Baser, Tim Goodwin and the Hertford Neighbourhood team at Network Homes. The local butchers also help with opening and closing the hub on days when it is not manned by staff so the community can continue to come together. We are always looking for more people to join us every Thursday from 12 to 4pm, so anyone in the Sele Farm area is welcome to drop in to join the conversation.

Find out more about the Mix Café here.

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