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A spoonful of care

17 October 2014

A unique partnership between Caffè Nero, Romsey Abbey, a mental-health charity, and the NHS is integrating different sorts of care, discovers Sarah Lothian

Time to talk: the Revd Vanessa Lawrence (facing) enjoys a chat and a coffee at the Tree of Life mental-health cafe, held upstairs at Caffé Nero in Romsey.

Time to talk: the Revd Vanessa Lawrence (facing) enjoys a chat and a coffee at the Tree of Life mental-health cafe, held upstairs at Caffé Nero in R...

IT IS a typically lively Monday afternoon at the Tree of Life Café, held upstairs every week at Caffè Nero in the busy market town of Romsey, Hampshire.

The Revd Vanessa Lawrence is cradling a latte and moving between tables. "There's always lots of chatter," she says. Today, topics include The Great British Bake Off and a meditation group held at the Abbey. Volunteers run up and down the stairs, taking orders and delivering hot drinks.

Ms Lawrence is here in her capacity as mental-health chaplain at an acute in-patient unit for Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust. She is one of the co-founders of this pioneering café project, which seeks to raise awareness of mental-health issues and the links between mental health and spirituality.

"We get all kinds of customers," she says. "Claire is a mental-health service-user; she's helping my colleague Sarah refine her knitting skills. Peter is on his lunchtime break from a local shop, and we've just had a businessman come in who was intrigued by our publicity banner."

People visit for many different reasons. Some have experienced mental ill-health, and they may want to build confidence and form new friendships. Some are curious about mindfulness; and others may be looking for information on counselling, or are worried about a relative or friend.

"We advertise in the local paper, and our leaflets are available in doctors' surgeries and local churches," Ms Lawrence says. "We don't need huge amounts of money: we subsidise the coffee, and that's the only outlay. We sell cards at various events to meet our costs; so it's pretty much self-funded."

The Tree of Life Café opened two years ago after Southern Health NHS became a pilot site for a national Department of Health initiative, ImROC (Implementing Recovery through Organisational Change).

"The concept of 'recovery' in mental-health terms is all about exploring a meaningful life, whether you have the symptoms of mental ill-health or not," Ms Lawrence says.

"It's intertwined with spirituality because it's all about hope, meaning, and purpose, which is what spirituality essentially is. And spiritual well-being is so important for mental health. There's a huge amount of research that backs this up."

Resources available at the café include literature from local counselling services and other organisations, such as the Depression Alliance. Leaflets on stress-relieving hobbies, such as gardening and photography, sit alongside Royal College of Psychiatry pamphlets on mental illness. There is also information about mindful prayer, and a meditation evening at a church near by.

Although Ms Lawrence's colleague at the café is a mental-health nurse, the emphasis is on support and friendship. "One thing we do not do is attempt to counsel people. [And] our ethos and values are such that we do not evangelise or promote any particular religion, as we recognise that a number of people we are working with are vulnerable and susceptible to influence."

The project is a joint initiative between Southern Health, Romsey Abbey (the largest parish church in Hampshire), and a local mental-health charity with links to the Abbey, Triangulate.

Ms Lawrence believes that the partnership between the Trust and the Abbey has been vital to the project's success. "Churches are often ideally placed to recognise people in distress, and they are ideal places for people who have lived experience of mental-health issues to demonstrate their gifts.

"But churches often lack confidence in engaging with these kinds of issues. In a similar way, mental-health services can lack confidence in engaging with spiritual care, although it's really essential to look at somebody holistically. Chaplaincy can be a bridge between both worlds.

"Our aim now is to develop a network of local churches who might further this engagement, because it has enormous benefits for everyone involved."

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