Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Mind Yourself in London

Vibrant charity works to challenge poorer mental health outcomes of Irish in Britain, old and young

Tue, Apr 8, 2014, 17:51

   

Claire Barry

Given that it is Michael D Higgins who is undertaking a historic State visit to Britain, it’s apt to start with a poem which is hanging in the Mind Yourself office.

How to kill a living thing
Neglect it
Criticise it to its face
Say how it kills the light
Traps all the rubbish
Bores you with its green
Continually
Harden your heart
Then
Cut it down close
To the root as possible
Forget it
For a week or a month
Return with an axe
Split it with one blow
Insert a stone
To keep the wound wide open.
{ by Eibhlin Nic Eochaidh}

We hung this, and others, last year when we moved into our new offices in Islingon to remind ourselves that the heart of Mind Yourself is about closing wounds. And there are many in the London Irish community.

Some were inflicted in Ireland and others, or more, while in London. The cumulative effect of life’s trials for the London Irish community is that we have poorer health than the general British population. To highlight just a few examples we have higher standard mortality rates for most cancers, higher rates of inpatient admission for depression and anxiety, and Irish men are significantly more likely to die by suicide.

So in 2012 we established Mind Yourself following the wind up of the London Irish Women’s Centre, included men in our work and set ourselves the considerable task of improving the health of Irish people in London.

What is it we do?

Simply put we make space for the widest expression of Irishness and create acceptance for all shapes of Irishness. We know that it’s the emotional wounds which cause the deepest and longest lasting pain, and these are often due to a person being considered the “wrong shape” for the surrounding world either in Ireland or London, and being forced out. We are struck by the number of people who have embraced our vision for an Irish community which recognises the diversity of Irish identity i.e. that to be Irish is not necessarily to be white, straight and Catholic. Some people suggest this is a contemporary interpretation of Irishness but we disagree and feel it is long overdue.

We take a broad view of what it means to be healthy and well and so our services are diverse. We provide one-one health related advice, information and support to anyone who wants it, particularly those in poor physical and mental health. We do this anywhere which suits including people’s own homes. We accompany people to medical/health appointments, generally those who would not otherwise be able to attend these. We provide listening support over the phone for people who are having a tough day.

We run a multitude of group activities from choir, drama, film and knitting to Waiting for Godot workshops, debt and legal advice clinics, drama and yoga, all facilitated by volunteers. Just as one group finishes it seems someone appears from the ether with an offer of another, often quirky, activity.

We hold monthly peer support groups for carers and the LGBT community, and provide space for the Mixed Race Irish group to organise their campaign. We’ve developed a volunteer timebank where people can share their skills with each other, so you’ll find someone getting a guitar lesson one day and popping back in to give IT tuition the next.

Finally, we convene a series of free public conversations aimed at exploring the factors which impact on our health. We don’t shirk from naming difficult things to ourselves and to others. Last year we held these in spaces as diverse as the House of Lords, the Irish Embassy, Southwark Town Hall and our “Living Room” in Islington, a recognition of our right to use these spaces.

In the words of one person, Mind Yourself acts as a receiver in a world full of transmitters.

Since 2012 our members have ranged from lawyers to housewives, roofers to teachers, actors to unemployed people, people caring for ill family members to retired posties, and have been aged 19-85 years. Some have been in London over 50 years, others were born here to Irish parents and grandparents and more have just arrived from Ireland or via places as diverse as Lebanon, Canada or France. Truly all human Irish life passes through here. And there is always room for one more.

Claire Barry is director of Mind Yourself, and has lived in London since 2009. See mind-yourself.co.uk

This article forms part of a series on Irish emigrants in Britain on the Generation Emigration blog this week to coincide with the President’s historic State visit. For full coverage of the events, including live blogs by our correspondents in London, galleries, live videos and more, see The Irish Times State Visit subsite.

Claire Barry (second from left) with the Mind Yourself team at the Irish Embassy in London.

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