The New Normal: How Lochaber Hope are continuing to support their community’s mental health

Lochaber Hope’s team Zoom call

Lochaber Hope was set up in 2005 to bridge the gap in mental health service provision in Lochaber. Whilst there was some support available in the community for specific groups of people, for example those affected by homelessness, there was little support available for those facing issues such as addiction, debt, trauma, low-confidence and those who felt they were stuck in a rut.

We spoke with Alyson Smith, Founder and Manager of National Lottery funded Lochaber Hope, to hear how the group have continued to support those in their community affected by mental ill health throughout the pandemic.

The switch to digital

“Most of the people in our groups have said they wouldn’t have managed without them.”

“Every service we provided was immediately moved to online platforms, at one point we had 48 zoom chat groups, activity and per support groups keeping people connected. We now have 18 online groups still running and the feedback is clear that the bonding and friendships that have grown within these have supported people through lockdown. Most of the people in our groups have said they wouldn’t have managed without them.

Speaking about their social enterprise, The Workshop, Alyson says:

“The first project was to build a St Ayles Skiff, this would be a community project and would start us off promotionally before we would start making quality bespoke furniture for retail. Unfortunately, we had to dismantle and store the skiff before it was finished until we can have volunteers back in the premises, our project lead is now making this beautiful furniture in response to community orders.

Progress on Lochaber Hope’s skiff boat before it was dismantled

“We had major concerns, we know some of our clients rely heavily on our services, people were panicking and fearful of the unknown. Our main concern was to hold the current clients (around 180) and still to be able to reach out to more of the community and appeal to them to encourage people they knew who were isolated, at risk and not coping to speak to us. We also gave out digital devices and set people up with broadband if they didn’t have the means to be connected. We took one to one phone calls and set up an anonymous webchat line to be able to reach as many people as possible to check on their mental health and allow them to talk and share.”

Reaching the hard to reach

“We advertised our online platforms with leaflets going to every household, we promoted our services on the local radio in the local newspaper, Facebook and Twitter and by changing the tone and structure of our appeals, we kept reaching new people. We also had fortnightly breakfast networking meetings where we could share with colleagues and organisations the excellent work that was being done in the community.

The Lochaber Hope workshop which has closed to the wider group for the time being

“Most have responded very well, some found it difficult to manage the techy side of online platforms and this made them feel incapable or silly, or they would hide it and just wouldn’t join however – only a few required additional support.”

The effects of lockdown on mental health

“Surprisingly, many of our clients thrived, they had no pressure to act in any way except who they were, they didn’t have to go out, didn’t have to meet people. We had a 50% reduction in young people of school age needing our support as they were reporting that they didn’t have schoolwork pressure, they were bully free, and no longer faced pressure to be like their friends.

“On the other hand, we recognised that people who are usually quite resilient were wobbling, and not coping well with lockdown. There was a lot of self-reflection and questions arising like: who am I outside my job, who am I in my relationship? Because we were all in this together the majority of our clients felt supported and part of that support for others. Some of our volunteers had wobbles. People who had good mental health were thrown in at the deep end with no coping tools, no organised support and this was difficult to stay on top of.”

Lochaber Hope gatherings before COVID-19

Hope for the future

“What gives us hope now is the passion of people in the community, the way people have come together no matter what and the dedication and kindness of our volunteers.”

“The future looks bright, we have an excellent reputation in the community.

“In 2019, Lochaber Hope set up a peer support group for suicide intervention as a result of us having over 60 people through our doors the previous year (one of them was 9 years old) telling us they were going to end their lives, every one of them is still here today, many supporting us and now volunteering.

“We are currently restructuring staffing. I, the manager, have been able to reflect and look at more or new gaps in the community and start to prepare to fill these gaps again. We are looking at what we want Lochaber Hope to look like in 10-years-time. As I am also the founder and main driver, we are hoping to recruit for someone to take over this role and allow me to develop the organisation.

“What gives us hope now is the passion of people in the community, the way people have come together no matter what and the dedication and kindness of our volunteers.”

Lochaber Hope were awarded £98,000 of National Lottery funding to run weekly practical skills groups, social workshop sessions with the wider community and to set up a suicide prevention programme and support groups for families affected by suicide.

To find out more about Lochaber Hope, visit their Facebook page.

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