Kevin O’Shanahan is a Nurse Specialist in Mental Health and the Arts with Cork Mental Health Services, working within the HSE’s Cork Kerry Community Healthcare Organisation. He works in a co-productive way with health professionals, artists, people in recovery and local communities as part of 49 North Street, a dedicated space in Skibbereen for creativity, recovery and wellbeing.
At the time of writing, the safety of the most vulnerable in our society and the work of those on the frontline in healthcare and other essential services remains the priority. Please continue to show your solidarity, by maintaining the social distancing and other recommended Governmental protocols. At the forefront of our minds, most of all are the ill, those who have passed on, their families and loved ones – ‘go bhfanfaidh said i suaimhneas.’
We are living through traumatic times. A traumatic experience is one which is deeply distressing or disturbing and disrupts one’s sense of self. Childhood trauma, in the form of physical, emotional or sexual abuse, is recognised as a predisposing factor to mental health difficulties in later life.
A collective trauma is a traumatic psychological effect shared by a group of people or an entire society. Seismic events such as war, the Holocaust or the Great Famine in Ireland are examples of collective traumas.
The spread of Covid-19 (Coronavirus) around the globe has catapulted the world into trauma. The speed at which the virus has spread and the death toll that has resulted from it has transformed our lives in ways that would have been unimaginable to us at the start of this year.
The psychological effects of the pandemic on our mental health and wellbeing are traumatic. The isolation required, due to the necessary physical distancing measures, means exile from others and from normal life.
All of a sudden life is not what it was and we don’t know when and in what way things will ever return to normal. The daily routine of work, school and leisure has crumbled, like a wave levels castles made of sand. Where do we go from here?
Recovery and hope
A starting place might be to remember in these difficult times, that individually and collectively, people do recover from traumatic experiences. A notable example of this is in the recovery movement in mental health contexts, where individuals often against all the odds have recovered from serious mental health difficulties. They have transformed their lives in the process.
The Chime framework for Mental Health states recovery is a unique and individual experience, but is underpinned by five common themes. These are connectedness, hope and optimism, identity, meaning and purpose, and empowerment. Our work at 49 North Street is informed by a recovery approach and it has provided inspiration during these traumatic times because it is built on a foundation of hope and optimism.
In frightening and uncertain days like these, where we are engulfed in loss, it can be very difficult to keep hope – but it is essential that we do. We have to keep hope, just as those who have recovered kept hope alive, like a candle burning in the darkest of nights.
I would like to share a story of hope with you that has resonated with me in the midst of this pandemic. It is the 1640s in England. Oliver Cromwell and his marauding army are at the height of their powers. Cromwell is offended by the religious imagery in a small county church and so instructs his troops to have it demolished. This they duly do. The local people are distraught because the church is home to a beautiful stained-glass window, which now lies in small sharp shards of broken glass. The local villagers are distraught – but not defeated.
Slowly they begin to pick up the pieces of their lives, including the fragments of broken glass from the church. The community gathers together and re-assembles the window in a new form. It is the same glass, but a new window is created that is now abstract in design. The colours blend into each other in new ways that no one would have dreamed could look so beautiful.
The community coming together as one has kept the candle of hope burning. Times may change but the need to keep the flame of hope burning bright, when the clouds of darkness gather, remains. We too now all have a part to play, in creating hope and happiness in our own communities.
A Happiness Ensemble
The Happiness Ensemble is a music and recovery group that meets weekly at 49 North Street. It was the brainchild of Peter Fitzpatrick, who wished to create a space in the community where people could come together and play music and openly discuss their mental wellbeing. Since 2011, it has provided hope and happiness to a wide variety of people. A participant told me recently, “If it were not for the ensemble, I would not be alive, because it gave me a place to belong when I felt I couldn’t go on. A place to meet others, find my feet and have some fun. People need a space like this, because many people spend their days alone, with nowhere to go and no one to meet.” Little things make a big difference. So many more of us have experienced more intense emotions during this pandemic, including uncertainty, loneliness, loss and trauma. We will need creative and hope-giving spaces where people can help to heal each other – Happiness ensembles for the world.[i]
The role of the arts
This is where the arts can help. The arts are therapeutic in themselves and a valuable tool in recovery from trauma. Creative endeavour allows us a safe place from which to explore our inner emotional world and deepest feelings.[ii]
This pandemic while it has closed many doors has opened others. Some members of the North Street community have used the time for inner reflection and creative writing, or as a participant put it to me – “By having to stop doing, doing, doing, we are giving ourselves and the world a chance to breathe and repair.” The seeds of creativity are sown from stillness and in darkness.
The people of west Cork, like others around the country, have combined creative thinking and technology in novel ways to connect digitally. People’s generosity has also been astounding. Free online courses ranging from mindfulness, singing, tai chi, painting and music-making have sprung up overnight, the way daffodils seem to do. Each morning there seems to be more and more springing up to provide connection and hope, albeit in new ways.
To conclude, we have been inspired by and are grateful to the frontline healthcare workers and others working in essential services, who have risked their lives to protect and save the lives of others. Their example gives us all hope for the future.
Creative activity can also help us to remain hopeful. Singing, dancing, writing, painting and all forms of creative endeavour can help us to look within and express difficult emotions and loss. In the process we can lift our own and others’ spirits. In this way we can create beauty out of loss, just as in the story of the village and the stained-glass window.
For information on 49 North Street and other community wellbeing initiatives developed by Cork Mental Health Services visit https://thewellbeingnetwork.ie/
[i] Filmmaker Aoise Tutty Jackson is currently working with the North Street Community and composer Liam McCabe to create two short films. The ‘Tune In’ Project invites people in the local West Cork and North Street community to take part in a collective response to the changing times by using their phone or other audio recording devices to record and respond to a number of questions around the art of ‘Listening’ and ‘Tuning In’. Building on The Happiness Ensemble initiative, people will also be asked to contribute by making sounds/music using their bodies, found objects or instruments. The work will be collated into two short films.
[ii] Dr Pat Bracken, a psychiatrist and previously Clinical Director of the Mental Health Service in West Cork, has written about the role of the creative arts in mental health recovery: http://www.artsandhealth.ie/perspectives/mental-health-recovery-and-the-role-of-the-creative-arts/
Feature image: An Open Door is a short film by Aoise Tutty Jackson exploring Skibbereen’s pioneering adult mental health service, 49 North Street, which provides a space for hope and recovery for the local community. Web: www.92circles.com Social media: @92circles