In responding to mental health needs, Lisheen House in Skibbereen in West Cork is a great example of what communities can achieve by themselves. However, the gaps are glaring in the country’s mental health services. As co-founder Mick Kearns tells Hannah Ní Shúilleabháin, independent community-based, volunteer-managed services cannot fill all the gaps. Rather than wait however, Lisheen House is expanding its service to two more towns.
Lisheens House, a children and adolescent counselling service, is moving onto the main street of Skibbereen. The charity has purchased a building on North Street in hopes the visibility and larger space will improve their in-demand efforts.
“By having a presence in the town and by people seeing it, they’ll associate it: if I need help, that’s where I can go,” said Mick Kearns, co-founder of Lisheens House along with Noreen Murphy. Kearns believes the building will make a big difference in addressing the long-term mental effects of the pandemic: “We’re preempting the surge that’s going to be there, and having a dedicated centre will meet that increased demand.”
Last September, Lisheens House received a €140,000 loan from Clann Credo Community Loan Finance for the new location. On Facebook, Murphy called the new centre a “testament” to the community spirit in West Cork.
After two years as a one-room operation, Lisheens House – West Cork’s first independent, dedicated child and adolescent counselling centre – opened on Ilen Street in 2016. Its name commemorates the house Noreen Murphy built with her husband Donal before he died of suicide in 2007.
The centre in Skibbereen includes counselling rooms, art and movement therapy spaces, and a second-hand furniture shop. The counselling service does not receive government funding and is primarily supported by furniture sales, and otherwise by personal fundraisers, such as a donation in lieu of wedding favours.
Kearns likens the community support of the charity to a boomerang.
“By giving us their odds and ends, the public ends up getting a building back that’s there to be used,” he said. “It’s a true example of how communities can effect change, and just another example of a sustainable community enterprise where if people support you, it actually stays in the community. Once the building is finished, the penny will drop that each of them who supported us contributed towards this being there.”
Increasing demand to preempt a crisis
“In January (2021) we would have seen a doubling, even tripling, in demand in some weeks,” said Kearns. “Normally we’d expect to field about ten calls a week—that went to 30 calls a week in early January.”
He connects this rise to that of the Covid case numbers. The overwhelming prompt: uncertainty.
After the lockdown of March 2020, the charity employed two additional play therapists to share the load of counselling originally placed on one. These counsellors practice primarily off-premises, but Kearns plans for the new building to house the majority of future sessions. “Younger children, they need a kind of stimuli,” said Kearns. “So we’ll customize the rooms to make them appropriate for younger people to feel comfortable. It’s conducive to them opening up and developing a relationship with the therapist.”
Lisheens House offers its free counselling service to children as young as seven.
“As a community-centred organization we don’t say no to anyone,” said Kearns. “The age profile of people looking for help, unfortunately, is lowering.”
Kearns believes Lisheens and other independent services take on a large load unaddressed by Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) under the HSE.
“There’s huge waiting lists and staffing problems that compound the waiting lists,”said Kearns.
Last July, Newstalk reported 2,559 children on the waiting list, with 250 waiting over 12 months according to Freedom of Information Figures. The ‘Irish Examiner’ reported a 7% drop in waiting list numbers last August, but data was incomplete due to the cyberattack on the HSE. The HSE told the Examiner 94.9% of young people were seen within 12 months in community CAMHS services as of August.
“The hardest thing is to reach out,” said Kearns. “If you did reach out and are told, ‘Sorry you have to wait,’ it’s a real slap in the face.”
CAMHS provides the assessment and treatment for under-18s and their families experiencing mental health difficulties once referred by their GP. The majority of adolescents are treated through Community CAMHS, or outpatient methods, which can include meetings with professionals such as psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses, social workers, occupational therapists and speech & language therapists.
The ‘Medical Independent’ reported last September that, although some 99 disciplinary CAMHS teams were planned in a 2006 policy document, there were only 72 community teams in place around the country.
“Accessibility is vitally important,” said Kearns. “All expert opinion of that service is that it’s really not fit for purpose in its current existance.”
As Cork and Kerry held the highest share of children on waiting lists from late 2020 to mid-2021, Lisheens House is in a position to fulfill their mission of de-urbanising mental health care.
“We’d envisage instead of people going towards urban areas, they’d migrate to where services are available,” said Kearns.
The Irish Hospital Consultants Association (IHCA) shared its criticism of the government’s budgeting for mental health services in August when launching its Mental Health pre-budget 2022 submission. It commented that while the budget of €1,114.1 million for 2021 is higher than in 2009, “given the population growth since then, the current mental health budget is actually €2,000 per 1,000 population below the spend 13 years ago.”
A total of €1.149 billion has been allocated to mental health in Budget 2022. Minister of State for Mental Health and Older People, Mary Butler, announced the funding of two new CAMHS telehubs in a push to provide more alternative out-of-hours mental health support services.
What communities can achieve
Community-run charities are a community among themselves, sharing goals and strategies in fundraising and outreach. Lisheens House depended on the advice of TalkToTom in Gorey to get started, and is providing guidance to Open Arms Kerry as they grow. The collaboration between mental health charities leads to strategies that work and are easily transferable.
“Keep it simple,” Kearns advises. “You’re not going to fix everything, but you can make a difference.”
Lisheens House looks forward to the possibility of fulfilling what CAMHS cannot in West Cork, and at an equivalent standard of practice. “We’re quite anxious that this will be comparable with best standards,” said Kearns. “We’re adamant that it will be held up as a beacon of how communities can actually – once they pull together in support of social enterprise – get results that show what it can do.”
New outlets in Clonakilty & Bandon
Since opening its used furniture shop in Skibbereen, Lisheens House has added two more outlets in Clonakilty and Bandon. The shops are now all branded as Lisheens House Homeware and Furniture.
The charity hopes that, as the new furniture shops bring in revenue, new support services will follow to these locations. The idea is that income derived in each town will be re-invested in that town.
Donations of furniture are welcome (call 086-4066348).
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Helpline: 023 888 8888.