AN alternative approach to mental health recovery, by way of social farming, community living and personal progression planning.
That is an apt description of Slí Eile Farm in Churchtown, North Cork, a mental health service which was set up in 2004 by Joan Hamilton. Its currently home to nine residents.
When Joan’s daughter, Geraldine, was 16, she began having mental health difficulties. She spent the next 14 years revolving in and out of psychiatric hospitals. This led to Joan researching alternatives to traditional psychiatric treatments.
During her research, she discovered Hopewell Farm in Ohio and Gould Farm in Massachusetts; American farms which offered their residents an alternative approach to mental health recovery through a social farming and a therapeutic model.
‘Slí Eile’ translates directly from English to Irish as ‘another way’.
“I felt there had to be ‘another way’,” Joan tells me at Slí Sile farm. “I felt what was needed was a living environment, where a person could get peer support and be supported by people who understood.”
There were a few false starts at finding a home in the early days, but in 2006, the first inception of Slí Eile was underway at a location in Charleville.
Since 2012, Sli Eile has been based at Burton Park, a 17th century manor house that sits on a 50-acre farm at the edge of Churchtown village.
Here, the residents work alongside support workers who assist them with their daily structured routines that involve 7am starts, being supported in their medication programme, gardening and baking, reflective journalling, attending appointments, and supporting them to engage in an array of activities such as mindfulness meditation.
Shortly after relocating to Burton Park, a Saturday Market was established, which has become a social cornerstone within the North Cork community. It usually runs from April to October.
Walking around Burton Park, it’s easy to see why the location was chosen as the home for Slí Eile. Some of the stone walls surrounding the Manor’s 17th century courtyard are arched; beneath them, ion the day I attended, an array of local vendors were selling their produce, and there is an old farm building that is converted as a temporary dining area.
In the middle of the courtyard is a marquee that serves as another dining area too.
There is a homely atmosphere that is enjoyed by the patrons who browse the stalls. Behind the courtyard lies a fully operational organic farm growing seasonal veg and some polytunnels.
The 2021 market season wrapped up at the weekend with a Halloween-themed event.
Jess Angland is the Chief Operations officer at Slí Eile. Since coming on board in January, 2021, she has introduced creative activities at the market.
“When I came, I was really wanting to get different pockets of people coming here, so we had vintage car people here one Saturday, we had sea shanty singers another day. I really wanted to embrace diversity, different people from different places. That was very important for me,” Ms. Angland says.
“At the weekly market, we sell our organic veg which we produce here on the farm, and then we have local stallholders who come in; craftspeople, artists and, in the centre of the courtyard there’s local community musicians and people come in and have a coffee.”
While Slí Eile is run independently, it receives a large portion of its funding from the HSE. In tandem with this support, they developed social enterprise projects within the community to generate extra funding through sales from their bakery and organic farm produce.
“The Market serves lots of purposes for us,” Jess adds. “Obviously, there’s the funding side of things, but probably more importantly, we feel, we’re giving back to the community and we’re involving the community.
“Since Covid, people love coming here for a sense of connection. We’ve had a lot of people coming here saying, ‘I’ve mental health issues myself, I suffer from depression and anxiety, I feel it’s OK to talk about it here’.
“With Covid-19 people, were very isolated, but they could come here because it was outside.”
John O Connell is a farmer who works at Slí Eile. He manages the business and the horticultural social enterprises attached to the farm.
He tells me that the tenant’s involvement in the market has important benefits to their place within the community.
“We grow 27 different types of vegetables here. We have our own market stall here which is nearly sold out every week.
“The people who man our stalls are our tenants who get great satisfaction from it. It gives them a chance to integrate with the public, to make new friends, to make new connections, and it gives them a sense of ‘can do’ attitude.
John Cremin is a local volunteer who looks after the Slí Eile Deli: its produce is supplied by local producers, and 100% of the profits go to Sli Eile.
“As a stallholder, I go around and source food, mainly artisan food, Hegarty’s Cheese from Whitechurch,” said John.
“Chorizo and fennel salami is provided by a producer in Co Meath. There are a number of other suppliers. All these guys really supply me with good deals because it’s going to Sli Eile. Bluebell cheese (Bluebell Falls Artisan Cheese) supplies me for nothing, so everything is a profit.
“We have Ballyhoura Juices, the salmon comes from a local producer, we have stuff from Kilworth; everything is as good as local,” Mr Cremin explains.
Attending the Farmers Market on the day I was there were John McKeown and clinical psychologist Dr Eoghan Galavan. They are in the early stages of developing a similar social farming and community housing project in Kildare which will be called Kyrie Farm. They were visiting Slí Eile to get a feel for what makes a place like this work.
“It’s just so wonderful to see community and social elements of life being brought to bear that are helping people with mental health problems,” said Dr Galavan.
“Slí Eile is a shining example of how community and relationships and being part of a community is in and of itself therapeutic.”
Joan Hamilton retired as CEO of Slí Eile in 2017. We chat briefly as she soaks up the atmosphere in the courtyard.
“It’s just wonderful to come here on a Saturday and see how the market is flourishing,” Joan says.
After the market winds down, the team at Slí Eile will implement a new way of engaging with its residents.
With the backing of UCC’s psychology department, next January they will train all their staff in Trauma Informed Care; a method that teaches staff how to acknowledge trauma in their own lives and help them recognize trauma in the lives of its residents.
“It is designed to teach staff to see beyond people’s symptoms and meet the person where they are at,” Ms Angland explains.
A special Christmas market will take place at the courtyard of Burton Park on December 11.