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Mental health charity volunteers on how the pandemic 'has brought things to a head'

Depression charity Aware is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Claire Simpson speaks to two Aware volunteers about their own mental health struggles and how attitudes to wellbeing have changed over the last few decades.

Helen McDonnell has been involved with Aware since it was set up in 1996

"This pandemic has brought things to a head. We are only at at the start of this with regards to mental health."

Helen McDonnell has been involved in mental health for most of her working life.

The 54-year-old sits on the board of Aware and has seen the group become one of the most important mental health charities in the north.

Over the the last few decades, she has noticed a sea-change in attitudes to mental wellbeing.

"I remember a long time ago, in the early days of Aware, being in a meeting and talking about the stigma of mental health, how we saw ourselves as an organisation, our future, our vision," she said.

"The vision was that people could talk about their mental health."

She said 25 years ago "the conversation would have been around people with severe mental health problems".

"For general low mood or anxiety it was, or I certainly felt it was, seen as a sign of weakness," she said.

"There was a `pull yourself together, why are you feeling like this' thinking."

Ms McDonnell suffered post-natal depression after the birth of her second child and later experienced burn-out from her job at a separate mental health charity.

"When my mental health suffered 20 years ago I probably wouldn't have wanted to talk about it because I thought `I work for a mental health charity, I should be able to cope'," she said.

"Now, many moons later, I am more open about talking.

"The whole environment has changed and people are more open."

Caitlin Johnson, from west Belfast, is one of Aware's youngest group facilitators. Picture from Aware

Ms McDonnell joked that after being involved with Aware for 25 years "they can't get rid of me".

She said she continued to be inspired by founder Gerry Ward's compassionate vision for the charity.

"It's a very heart-led organisation," she said.

"Our support groups have always been the foundation of Aware but the educational training has also been really important - educating people on what you can do to support your good mental health."

She added: "When you suffer the lows you also see the highs as well. It makes you appreciate things more. Seeing that and helping people see there is light at the end of the tunnel… it's hope and giving people hope that keeps me involved."

Ms McDonnell has her own business, Indigo Life Coaching, and offered free mindfulness sessions during the pandemic.

She said lockdown has sparked "a whole raft of people experiencing mental health issues".

"With regards to the pandemic everyone has been affected," she said.

"With things constantly changing there is fatigue there. I always say you have an emotional immune system as well as a physical immune system and when it's compromised or put under pressure it's going to suffer.

"The social contact, the isolation, the anxiety, the fear - that's across the board."

Ms McDonnell said improving mental wellbeing needs to be a government priority.

"This pandemic has brought things to a head," she said.

"We are only at at the start of this with regards to mental health. There will be a ripple effect. Governments need to prioritise and fund mental health. The wellbeing of communities, the wellbeing of individuals is going to have a direct effect on the economy. It is the foundation of everything."

She said support for people in crisis is also hugely important.

"When people get to a crisis point families are often at their wit's end so there needs to be a focus on crisis intervention and that families are involved in people's care," she said.

Ms McDonnell said meditation has helped her and is now a "non-negotiable" part of her day.

"But there's no one size fits all, everyone is unique, everyone is different," she said.

"What may work for me may not work for you. It's important that people know that and find out what works for them."

Depression charity Aware is celebrating its 25th anniversary

Caitlin Johnson (23), from west Belfast, is one of Aware's youngest group facilitators.

She suffered from depression in 2016, while studying for her A Levels, and "really struggled to get out of bed some days".

"I just didn’t feel like I had a purpose in life," she said. "I didn't think that I had anything to live for."

Ms Johnson's mother Margaret, who also works for Aware, was the first person to notice she was feeling low.

After initially seeing her GP, she took part in an eight-week life-coaching course and later completed Aware's `Living Live to the Full' programme which helps participants improve their mental health.

Ms Johnson later trained as a volunteer with Aware and began leading a support group in north Belfast in August 2018.

"That's when I found that my purpose in life is to help people," she said.

"Facilitating is just a wonderful experience. It's completely life-changing, not only for support group users but for me to be able to see people come into that room and leave looking like a different person."

She said support groups, open to people who are 18 and over, are not a form of counselling but a safe space where people can ask others for advice.

"I'm there to help that person open up, look within themselves and be able to answer questions themselves,” she said.

Groups were conducted online during the height of the pandemic but in-person sessions returned several months ago.

"Seeing people's faces as they stepped into the room was great," Ms Johnson said.

"Online is fine but people with ill mental health really appreciate that peer support."

Ms Johnson has a particular passion for helping young people.

"I think it's really important that young people know it's okay not to be okay," she said.

"Sometimes young people look at influencers and think why do I not look like that? Why is my life not like that?

"It's really sad because everyone is special in their own way. Instagram doesn't always give the true representation of what people are really like. Young girls feel pressure to always have their hair and their make-up and tan done."

She added: "Just because you see other people doing something you don't have to do it too. We all have different paths in life."

- For more information about Aware visit

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