Life

Drag artist's live-streamed rosary among ways northerners supporting each other

A Belfast drag queen and his mum are doing for the spirit what Joe Wicks – and fitness experts in Northern Ireland – are doing for the body during the coronavirus lockdown

Gerry Walls and his mum Teresa live stream rosary every night from their north Belfast home. Picture by Hugh Russell
Maureen Coleman

EVERY evening for the past few weeks Gerry Walls and his mum Terry light a candle in the living room of the house they share in north Belfast, before 'hosting' a live prayer session on Facebook.

For those who know Gerry better as his alter ego, Tina Leggs Tantrum, it's something of a surprise to see the flamboyant drag queen stripped bare of make-up and big hair, leading up to 500 viewers in prayer.

But faith is important to him, never more so than now, and he believes many people who have joined in the nightly 'mini-rosary' sessions are reaching out in an attempt to protect not just their loved ones, but their own mental health.

“I've had so many private messages from people saying they are finding the prayers comforting,” he says.

“The thing is, coronavirus has made everyone equal. We are all the same; we're all in this together and judging by the comments and messages I've received, people are looking at ways to try and help themselves through it.

“I got a wee video sent to me from a group of girls from the Shankill. They said they didn't know the prayers; they'd never heard them before, but they were still watching.

“I think as the crisis deepens, the power of prayer will get stronger too. My number one priority is my mum. I'm desperate to protect her and make sure she's not affected but I really feel like I can't do it on my own. I'm putting myself out there and asking for God's protection.

“And if it helps other people cope, then that's good. I know it's helping me to adapt to this new way of life. We all have to do whatever it takes to protect our mental health in such anxious times.”

With life under lockdown in its relatively early stages, mental health charities haven't yet seen a surge in people seeking help. But this is something they are expecting and are preparing for.

Karen Collins, chief executive of Aware, says that up until the social distancing plans were announced, people were focusing on the practicalities of the crisis. As the weeks go on, the impact on mental health will become clearer.

“Over the last few weeks, people have been dealing with the physical impact of the coronavirus crisis; ensuring they have enough food in the house, thinking up ways to entertain the children. So as yet, there hasn't been a big spike in the number of people reaching out to us.

“In a few weeks, however, we are fully expecting that the impact on mental health will be more pronounced. We are prepared for this. We have two online support groups who meet via Skype and will be looking at adding extra online groups, should there be a demand for it. (www.aware-ni.org/onlinesupportgroups)

“We will also be offering support and information via email: info@aware-ni.org and this will be staffed daily.”

According to Karen, there are a number of practical things everyone should be doing to help reduce stress levels – firstly, switching off from social media and the news, secondly, connecting with family and friends via telephone calls or Face-time and thirdly, taking advantage of the fact that for the time being, it is still possible to go outside once a day.

“We can't allow ourselves to get too absorbed in news and social media,” Karen says. “It's all consuming. We need to distance ourselves from it all and distract ourselves with fun activities. Watch your favourite box-set, play board games, read a book.

“Social distancing is particularly hard on those who live alone. It's a very different world we're living in at the moment. If you're feeling isolated reach out and connect. Pick up the phone, have a video chat, stay in touch with loved ones.

“We're still allowed to go outside once a day, within the boundaries we've been given. Make the most of this. Get fresh air. This will help you.”

Karen says having a daily routine is a good idea too and advises people to eat well, exercise and not use alcohol as a crutch. She also recommends downloading meditation apps such as Balance, Calm and Aura to help with breathing techniques.

“Plan your day, manage your time and know what your focus is,” she says. “And if at any stage, you're feeling overwhelmed, Lifeline has trained counsellors available on 0808 808 8000.”

Derry-born meditation and mindfulness coach Brenda Shankey, who also works with performing arts students at Urdang Academy in London, says to try and view the lockdown in a more positive light, as time we've been gifted.

“I know it's an anxious time but panic, fear and worry won't benefit any of us,” she says. “We are all in this together and compassion, kindness and love will get us through a lot easier.

“Try and see this time as a chance to be creative and productive; to try something new – sign up to an online course, do yoga, meditation and fitness classes on YouTube.”

Brenda is offering live meditation classes at 3pm every week day on the Urdang Instagram page and for those who feel particularly vulnerable, is also available for video chat.

“Accept the things you cannot change and change the things you can,” she says. “It's the only way to live through this.”

The benefits of physical activity on mental as well as physical health are widely known and many gyms, yoga instructors and personal trainers across the north are running classes and fitness tips online.

A live YouTube workout by the online fitness guru Joe Wicks at the start of last week was watched by over a million people, as parents looked for alternative teaching methods to cope with their children not being at school during the coronavirus outbreak.

After Wicks declared that he wanted to become 'the PE teacher for the nation', other trainers and teachers followed suit, with Glenveagh School in Belfast offering its pupils an online fitness routine.

Former boxing champ and owner of Magee Health and Fitness, Brian Magee, also livestreamed a boxing session for all the family from his Belfast home and said he planned to continue to offer live and inclusive workout sessions daily for the duration of the lockdown.

“These are hard times for everyone but keeping fit and doing exercise every day will break the day up and help you de-stress,” says Brian. “A good workout will release any pent up tensions or worries and is better than any pill a doctor could prescribe.

“I started off with a simple enough boxing session on the Magee Health and Fitness Page and got the kids involved too, to show exercise is for everyone. Things will progress as we go on and I'll be getting the other trainers involved too, doing live yoga.”

Brian says he wants to encourage people to get creative with their workouts and to use whatever they have at home as gym equipment; two litre milk bottles filled with water, two cans of baked beans, even a doorstep.

“Now is the time to start getting fit, if you haven't be doing it before,” he says. “Don't worry if you don't own expensive equipment. Use what you have about the house.

“Home workouts can be fun, can help release endorphins and can help you de-stress. We all need that right now.”

Sunlight, fresh air and nature are highly beneficial too for our mental health and many people will turn to gardening as a form of therapy.

Robin Mercer who runs one of Northern Ireland's largest gardening centres, Hillmount, says gardening is an excellent way of lifting our mood.

“It is important that we look after our mental health at times such as this and gardening can be therapeutic for all ages as well as providing a gentle form of exercise.

“This is a good time to prepare your garden for spring and to entertain the next generation at the same time. You can introduce your children to gardening from an early age, encouraging them to water plants, sow seeds and watch the plants and flowers that they've planted, grow."

ONLINE LOCAL RESOURCES AIMED AT MENTAL AND PHYSICAL WELLBEING

:: Reiki NI – offering guided meditation on Facebook.

:: Distant reiki healing – Philippa Falls on Facebook or contact 00353857496692

:: Live music from local artists – Vault Artist Studios

:: Breathing techniques – Helena Lavery, Flow Studio, Instagram and Facebook.

:: Poetry readings – actor Ian Beattie on Facebook

:: Children's bedtime stories – Armagh Planetarium online 7pm daily.

:: Apps such as Houseparty, Zoom, Google, Hangouts.

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