Wednesday 8 November 2017

Community, Cake, and Conversation: Talking Freely in Ely

In September I wrote of my excitement at being invited to speak at the second Talking FreELY Pop Up Café in the cathedral city of Ely. It exceeded all my hopes and expectations, and I am delighted to share my experiences of the occasion now that I am back in the north east. Organised by Talking FreELY, a community project established with the aim of getting people talking about mental health, the event was held at Ely Cathedral Conference Centre on Saturday November 4, 2017.

I drove down from Newcastle upon Tyne the day before and arrived at the cosy Nyton Guest House mid-afternoon. After checking in I wandered off to familiarise myself with where I needed to be next day. I enjoyed an excellent meal at the Minster Tavern, then headed back to the guest house for the evening. Ely is a beautiful city and deserves longer than I had to properly explore. Maybe next time!

I arrived at the venue around 8:30 a.m. next morning and met up with Talking FreELY events manager Jon Evans, project manager Carly Mason, founder Tony Sigrist, and the other volunteers and helpers. Everyone was so warm and friendly I immediately felt part of the team.

We had full use of the building. There was a free café on the ground floor serving tea, coffee and cake. This area also hosted an information zone and I was offered a table to display copies of our book, leaflets and contact cards. There was a demonstration of light therapy equipment by local company Lumie downstairs, and Sarah Parkin from the Ely Mindfulness Centre held mindfulness sessions in a room on the first floor. The talks were on the second floor.

I was one of three guest speakers. The other speakers were Jess Manley and Dr Steve Case-Upton. Jess is an Outreach Project worker for Cambridgeshire based children’s charity Blue Smile. She talked about her work providing counselling, therapy and mentoring for children in schools, as well as a wide range of other services. Steve is a GP in Ely and spoke on the subject of seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

I attended the first of Sarah’s mindfulness sessions. Her warm, engaged approach and the two short exercises she led did a lot to calm and centre me for my talk.

Despite it raining hard all morning the event as a whole was very well attended, and there were around forty people in the audience as Tony introduced me.

The talks were streamed live to the Talking FreELY Facebook page. Mine is also hosted on our YouTube channel.

My theme was how you can be a supportive friend to someone living with mental illness, whether you live in the same town or thousands of miles apart. It was based on an article I originally wrote for the No Stigmas Project in 2015, subsequently republished by The Mighty as 10 Ways to Support a Friend with Mental Illness When You’re Apart. The audience was lovely—they even laughed where they were supposed to! I overran my slot a little but there was time for a short Q&A. Several people approached me afterwards with questions, or simply to thank me for my contribution to the day. I had a great conversation on mental health in the workplace with someone who has recently taken on responsibilities in that area in the company where she works. This is something I would love to get involved in myself, and we intend to keep in touch and compare notes.

I loved Jess Manley’s talk about her work as a counsellor with Blue Smile, especially her demonstration of the sand box and toys she uses to engage with the children. Steve’s presentation on seasonal affective disorder drew the most questions of the day, testament to his choice of topic and perhaps the weather. I was interested to learn how difficult it can be, from a clinician’s perspective, to distinguish seasonal affective disorder from a person’s responses to other varying factors such as stress.

After Steve’s talk I went down to the café area to begin packing up. I was greeted by a lovely lady eager to buy a copy of High Tide, Low Tide. Fran and I appreciate anyone anywhere who likes our book enough to buy it, but there is something extra special about meeting someone face-to-face, discussing our book’s relevance to their situation, and signing a copy for them.

After the event had finished Carly invited me to visit Julia’s Tea Rooms, home of the Happy Café Ely. The atmosphere inside is warm and inviting, and it would surely be a favourite haunt of mine if I didn’t live two hundred and thirty miles away! Over cheddar cheese toasties we talked about how well the event had gone and what had brought each of us to want to engage with initiatives like the Happy Café, Time to Change, and Talking FreELY.

All too soon it was time for me to head back to Newcastle, but not before Carly and I had taken selfies (shelfies!) with each other and the café’s copy of High Tide, Low Tide.

I invited a few of those involved with the event to share what it meant to them.

Talking FreELY was set up to facilitate conversations about mental health and it was a delight to see so many people on Saturday doing just that, Talking FreELY. There was so much positive energy from the visitors, the speakers and the volunteers that the whole event was a moving experience.
— Carly Mason

I have been struck by how quickly and warmly Talking FreELY has been embraced in our community and beyond. You always ask yourself, “Do people really want this? Is it the right thing to do?” Seeing so many at the event and getting support from all over the UK puts all of those doubts to rest and reassures me how many people are prepared to stand up for better mental health and put an end to stigma.
— Anthony Sigrist

I was encouraged by the warmth of the people who ran the FreEly event and thoroughly enjoyed being an attendee as well as one presenting. It was inspiring to see how people from various walks of life are finding different ways to address mental health—professionally and personally. Compassion for others and determination to make a difference stood out. Much of what was said chimes with Blue Smile’s aims to support those children who experience poor mental health first or second hand and I very much look forward to hearing of future events.
— Jess Manley

Talking FreEly was formed to remove the stigma surrounding mental health and I am delighted that the second event built on the success of the first. With more people attending, some inspiring speakers which where transmitted live through Facebook as well, and some great discussion, I can honestly say that the events can only be considered a success. There are more to come in 2018 and I hope they grow and grow and support more of our amazing community.
— Jon Evans

I am immensely grateful to Carly, Jon and Tony for inviting me to be part of their day, and to everyone who attended for making me feel so welcome. You can keep in touch with Talking FreELY on their website, on Facebook and Twitter. Their next event will be on Saturday March 3, 2018. Maybe I will be there: I'd certainly love to meet up with everyone again!


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