FR Con Keogh founded the first GROW support group in Sydney, Australia, in 1967, in response to his own very personal experience with mental health issues and the dearth of support structures for people like him who were struggling.
Many psychiatric patients at that time had resorted to seeking help with their mental illness from Alcoholics Anonymous.
Described online as a “peer support and mutual-aid organisation for recovery from, and prevention of, serious mental illness”, GROW adapted many of AA’s principles and practices.
“Fr Keogh based the organisation on AA’s 12-step programme,” explains Diarmuid Cronin, GROW board member.
“Over the years, this programme has been refined into a 110-page book, but the 12-step approach remains the same.
“Each week, we read out the 12 steps. The first step, aimed at those new into the organisation, states ‘We admitted we lost our way and needed direction.’
“The wisdom of this first step leads you to the second, etc. As you progress through the programme, the later steps would be more appropriate.”
The book is full of inspirational reading and positive aphorisms of wisdom refined by people who have struggled with mental health issues. It is used as supporting literature for those on GROW’s programme.
One such quote is “When things go wrong, don’t go with them”.
GROW has been active in Cork since 1970.
“Fifty years ago, the approach to mental illness was very different. People were put into our Our Lady’s hospital and never came home. Over the years, we have made massive progress in how we handle mental health in this country,” says Diarmuid.
The Southern Region GROW is HSE-funded and has groups all over Cork and Kerry supported by trained facilitators.
“Demand for our services has risen dramatically in recent times,” says Diarmuid.
“We only restarted physical meetings about a year ago. During the pandemic, everything went online.
“Ironically, the pandemic was a blessing in disguise for the organisation.
“Prior to that, we would never have imagined that we would have had the capacity not only to move online, but to be very successful at it too.
“At the moment, we have three face-to-face meetings in Cork every week - two in the SMA centre in Wilton and one in Carrigtwohil Family Resource Centre.
“We recommend the face-to-face meetings, as it is a truer experience of GROW. However, for some groups, it may be more convenient or, where members are more spread out geographically, more preferable to remain online. For example, two Cork groups, based in Blackpool and Wilton, and one in Leap, Co Cork, have decided to remain online.”
Online members are generally from the same area, though Diarmuid stresses “that anybody in the county can join”.
“There are also weekly national online groups that are open to everyone to join. These offer a safe place to discuss any issues you like,” insists Diarmuid.
“Confidentiality is of paramount importance. People will only express themselves when they feel safe.”
The meetings are driven by an emphasis on peer-led support.
“While the workings of the meeting are overseen by trained facilitators, participants are encouraged to take on leadership roles and ultimately oversee a group meeting under the supervision of the facilitators and experienced group members. By giving people responsibility and leadership roles, it ultimately improves self-esteem and confidence and this is a huge part of GROW’s aim,” says Diarmuid.
“I have been involved with GROW for 14 years and initially, I was very reluctant to contribute. As my confidence grew, however, I got more involved and gradually made my way through the steps of growth from group leader to regional board member to chairman of the board.”
Diarmuid is now responsible for overseeing the fundraising for the organisation and sits on the regional board.
“In GROW, our essential goal is to give everyone a voice. If you find your voice, a natural consequence of that is you recover from your illness.”
GROW members view recovery as an ongoing life process rather than an outcome and are encouraged to continue following the Steps after completing them in order to maintain their mental health.
Community and social interaction is a huge element of GROW and it holds regular social events both regionally and nationally.
“Once lockdown was lifted, we found it very hard to get people back to meetings and social events. We are still only recovering lost ground a year later.
“The concert is an extension of all that GROW does by bringing people together and encouraging them to use their voices to express themselves through singing, along with the wonderful performers.”
The headline act for the GROW concert in Triskel Art Centre on Saturday May 6 is the incomparable singer-
Jimmy Crowley and his partner Eve Telford.
Also sharing the bill are rock band The Dagenum Yanks, traditional band Sonrai, Maria Gillen who is the current Irish-Storyteller-in-Residence at Kerry’s Writing Museum, along with folk singers Darby Crowley, Joyce Higgins and Brian Lawlor.
Further details from www.GROW.ie
Tickets €25/€20 for concessions from www.triskelartscentre.ie Doors open 7.30pm, concert begins at 7.45pm