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
"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
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