New Project Aims to Bridge City’s Mental Health Gap

Eoghan Dalton Reports

After a summer that saw children’s mental health services in the region fall into further disarray, a collective of educators and artists have come together to form a group hoping to bridge the gap.
Laochas – The Warrior Soul Project is aiming to teach children and young people about mental health and illness through therapies and programmes with the intention they learn how to process their emotions.
Members are professionally trained in areas including counselling, art and drama therapy, youth work, teaching and restorative practice.

While the idea had been knocking around director and founder Leslie Hughes’s head for several years, it appears one of the final reasons to set up Laochas came when the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) lost its remaining practitioners following their resignation, citing the stress involved with the work.
“What’s frightening is that children and young people are not getting the services and they’re not getting the treatment they need,” Leslie says. “There’s just a complete lack in Waterford.” “They’re presenting to a hospital if they’ve self-harmed or tried to take their life or if they have mental health issues. They’re put into a room that is not even a private room, and if they’re lucky that they’re actually kept in, they’re put into the adult facility,” she continues.

The project has  received an  amazing response

The project has received an amazing response

“There’s nothing around that, there’s no thought process around that in terms of what’s appropriate for a child or young person.”So far the group says it has already been able to put three young people in touch with a counsellor and music therapist, and is covering the costs. As with several of the non-profit’s members, Leslie herself has struggled. “I have suffered from mental health issues for over 25 years and I would be a suicide survivor as well from those years. Back then there was nothing. I couldn’t identify what was wrong with me. So I just thought it was me – that there was something wrong with me. And fast forward 25 years, it’s still going on.”

The aim, she explains, is to use interactive workshops to educate and empower children and adolescents 18 years and younger. “It’s so they can actually identify the feeling they’re going through and feel comfortable enough to speak out. Ms Hughes, who works as a preschool teacher in the city, says a pilot is about to start with a primary school and will tailor the workshops to the different age groups. “So, for instance, if we’re going into the junior and senior infants, it’ll be like puppet plays and doing interactive things with the kids, inviting them to talk about what’s going on with it, but being very mindful about the age and stage of development that the child is in. “Believe it or not, the important ages are the junior infants because they’re in their formative years. So it’s very important to get in there and instil that it’s okay to have these feelings, these emotions and how to cope with them.”
One of those well-versed in working with children through art and drama is Martina Collender of Waterford Youth Arts (WYA). She agrees with the director’s aim on getting kids used to the concepts around emotions early on.“What we have to tackle is toxic masculinity, where we’re telling boys they shouldn’t cry… B this society is also quite negative to loads of emotions, like fear and anger. I think, when we’re working with the kids, we adore emotions like anger. ”Through her work over the past five years with the Youth Arts, she says she has seen conditions such as anxiety becoming more prominent. “Particularly as they get older and start reaching puberty, they’re then at an age where they’re trying to figure out stuff like their identity, their sexuality,” she adds. “But our work is never really about the play. It’s more to do with confidence building, socialising and getting-to-know-you exercises.

“Mental health isn’t just about counselling though, it’s about accessing the service you need, depending on what you suffer from.”Another key member who has been involved since the start, Sue Larkin, says the project has received “the most amazing response” since it had its official launch at the start of October.” Sue added: “Ten or 12 people have offered their services to us since then so it means we have a pool of 20 people from play therapists, youth workers, music and art therapists. People have really seen the need so that’s very encouraging.”Larkin describes herself as the bureaucrat of the operation, trying to pull together all necessary governance documents, forming a strategic plan and working through what’s required of Laochas by law.
“This is all a direct response to a lack of services. There wasn’t any there when Leslie struggled over 20 years ago, she’s since passed into her 40s and there still isn’t,” she says.

One of the their aims outside of its work with schools is to fundraise enough money so that they can provide free, immediate counselling to children and young people in need.“I believe this Government should be down on its hands and knees, thanking voluntary services,” said Maria Collender, insisting Laochas should not have to even try to make up for the Government’s shortcomings. “I find it bizarre that we’re telling young people their lives are worth €50 a week.”

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