Taking The Next Step towards better mental health by nurturing creativity

At least 70 people a week cross the threshold into the Unitarian Church, to take part in The Next Step, an initiative to promote creativity for mental health, writes COLETTE SHERIDAN
Taking The Next Step towards better mental health by nurturing creativity
Gwen Kennedy who attends The Next Step.

LONELINESS, anxiety and depression afflict many people at different times of their lives. Helping to counteract mental health problems and promote creativity for mental health is a voluntary organisation called The Next Step.

Based in the Unitarian Church on Prince’s Street, the group is a collective of individuals who come together and find a friendly welcome and a space to express their creativity.

The chairperson of The Next Step is Vincent Murphy, a former consultant engineer who took early retirement in 2008.

“Early in 2010, I was walking down the street and came across a friend who has issues,” says Vincent. “ He was interested in doing something for people with mental health problems. We talked about it.”

A couple of other men, Tony Francis and Jens Reinhart, used to meet up with the men. They had “all kinds of weird and wonderful ideas which were really impractical. Eventually, we decided to concentrate on art.”

They were put in touch with professional artist, Charlotte Donovan, who works with various groups in Cork. She came on board to give art classes.

In 2011, The Next Step opened at Camden Palace Hotel before moving to the Unitarian Church. With some funding from Cork City Community Forum, Vincent was able to pay Charlotte for her work with the group as well as pay Camden Palace for space in the centre.

The Next Step increased Charlotte’s teaching work. It was a success so letters looking for further funding were written. The Next Step, which now has at least 70 people crossing its door every week, is funded by, among others, City Hall, the HSE, the Ireland Funds, the ESB’s corporate social responsibility fund, Shine Arts and an anonymous donor. The service users make a nominal donation to the charity and facilitators are paid for their work.

As well as art, facilitators come into the centre to teach singing, crafts, creative writing, yoga, dance, knitting and wood craft.

“In the event of a crisis, and we have had an occasional one with people expressing suicidal ideation, we have a protocol in place. When someone joins The Next Step, they give us the name of the medical person or family member to contact in the case of an emergency.

Vincent Murphy, Chairperson of The Next Step
Vincent Murphy, Chairperson of The Next Step

“We don’t enquire into people’s background and we don’t have anyone with a mental health qualification working with us. We don’t pretend to counsel. Our belief is that by coming here and engaging in creative activities, people will benefit and make friends in a warm environment.”

Vincent doesn’t have mental health issues himself.

“This just seemed like a positive thing to do. Initially, I was just going to be involved in setting up The Next Step. I’m still here seven years later.”

One of the regular attendees at The Next Step is Dubliner, Gwen Kennedy. Aged 39, she has been living in Cork for 17 years.

“I came to The Next Step because I had been off work for about two and a half years suffering from chronic pain,” says Gwen. “It was beginning to affect my mental health. I have fibromyalgia and other things going on. Because I’m not working, I was getting in on myself and spending too much time in bed. “

Gwen went back to work but now that her chronic pain has become more widespread, she has had to take more leave from her job as a care worker.

“I physically can’t do my job at this moment in time but I’ve always had an interest in arts and crafts. I’m quite lucky to be still technically employed but right now, I couldn’t guarantee that I’d be able to turn up for work.”

Gwen is a keen photographer.

“I’m lucky to live by the river. Most mornings, I go down to the river and take photos of the birds. I was taught photography by my dad as a kid. I had a camera in my hand before a pencil.”

Expressing herself through art is what motivates Gwen to attend The Next Step. She has created a portrait of a person in chronic pain.

“The different types of pain, like the stabbing pain I get, is portrayed by what looks like little pin pricks. When people see me, they wouldn’t realise that there’s anything going on. But my medical advice is to attend a pain specialist, something I’ve been doing for the last four years. I get nerve blockers every now and then.”

Gwen, who paints as well as takes photographs, says that The Next Step is brilliant.

“It’s something to do. I do mindfulness here every day and I listen to audio books (on mindfulness) when I’m walking around or trying to get to sleep.”

Gobnait (not her real name) is a 63 year old mother-or-three grown up children who admits to having been “in a bad way before I came to The Next Step.”

“I have found it invaluable. it has given me a sense of peace in myself and has helped me to relax. It also helped me to find my creativity which is fantastic. I do yoga here and mindfulness and five rhythms dance,” she said.

In 2010, Gobnait left “a very abusive marriage.”

She added: “I still have fear and anxiety. It’s only coming out now about women being abused. When you’re in that situation, you’re just surviving. When I left the marriage, I moved in with a relative. Now I’m living on my own outside Cork.”

Looking back on her marriage, Gobnait says that the relationship was toxic.

“I was constantly trying to make it right. But I was essentially being abused day and night, living in terror. I attempted to leave years back but when you have children, you can’t just walk. And you’re terrified you won’t be able to manage or survive financially. But I have survived on my own since 2010.”

Describing The Next Step as “an oasis in the middle of the turmoil that goes on in your head,” Gobnait would recommend any woman suffering from depression to try it out.

“I didn’t even know I had creativity before I came here. I always had it but never got the opportunity to express it. I used to be criticised for anything I did.

“Creativity is great for your emotional well-being. You can come in here if you’re having a bad day, sit down, have a cup of tea or coffee, knowing that what you’re going to say is not going to be dismissed.”

Gobnait never thought she would be in a relationship again but is going out with Joe (not his real name) who also attends The Next Step. Joe, who is 63, arrived at the group five years ago.

“Let’s say there was a lot of stuff going down the track. My marriage broke up. It was a sad time. I was home alone for about two years until I found this. It has given me structure and stability, something to aim for. There’s nice singing and meditation here.”

Joe said he had a choice; either to spend his days in the pub or do something else.

“I thought if I went down the pub route, there would be a train wreck and I didn’t want that.

“So I did some research and found this. I’ve made friends and have met a new partner.

“I’m on medication for depression and I’ve had psychosis. But The Next Step has helped me. It’s occupational therapy. I enjoy painting and singing.”

Clearly, The Next Step gives people a whole new lease of life.

www.thenextstepcork.org.

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