As the coronavirus pandemic spread, the world as most of us know it changed rapidly. Disruption to our daily routines, enforced isolation and concerns about the long-term economic and social impact of the crisis are all challenges for our mental health. It’s clear that maintaining good mental health will be just as important in helping us cope as maintaining our physical health. In such an unsettling time, it’s important that we use Mental Health Awareness Week to focus our attention on the support we need and think about the changes we can make to help ourselves and each other.
The theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is kindness. Throughout lock-down, inspiring stories of acts of kindness have been shared and celebrated, bringing hope for a kinder, gentler world in which people appreciate each other more and see the true value of community. At Emmaus, community is at the core of everything we do and sharing acts of kindness is a central part of our work. In celebration of Mental Health Awareness Week, I want to share a few examples from those supported by Emmaus, talking about why kindness matters to them and how it helps improve their mental health.
For Pat, a former companion of Emmaus Salford, kindness reduces feelings of isolation, helping her feel connected and valued. Pat now lives in her own flat and runs Lucie’s Pantry, a social supermarket located at Emmaus Salford. “I can’t put it into words what it means to be working within Lucie’s Pantry. It’s rewarding but it’s more than that. When people come in, it’s the chats I have with the members. Some people live on their own and don’t see anyone day to day. I can chat to someone and make their day as they make my day.”
When the work you undertake has benefits to others, that in itself can give people a sense of purpose. Janine from Emmaus Norfolk & Waveney explains: “The work that Emmaus provides makes me feel like I have a purpose, keeps me busy, and makes the day go quick. The best part is knowing that working isn’t just helping me – it helps the other companions and the community too, which is what makes it meaningful.”
Simon, a companion at Emmaus Leeds, talks about the value of a support network. Being kind to those around you can help us all feel more positive and optimistic. “At Emmaus you come in as an equal, you work and contribute to the best of your ability and you’re valued as an individual. The support network of Emmaus helps you look to the future and start again.”
Taking part in acts of kindness can give us perspective and encourage gratitude. Nigel, a companion at Emmaus Norfolk & Waveney, explains: “I go out on the van delivering furniture, white goods and other items to people who recently got housed by the council after being in difficult situations.”
Nigel adds: “We delivered items to a single mother with several children. They didn’t have anything other than what we were delivering, so we wanted to do something. We came back to the community and put some toys and food together for them. It really is amazing to be in a position where I could help somebody, and Emmaus has given me that opportunity.”
It feels good to make a difference to someone else. One of the most important parts of the Emmaus ethos is solidarity, meaning carrying out an act of kindness to help someone less fortunate than yourself. Martin, a companion at Emmaus Gloucestershire, shares an example of solidarity: “Every Wednesday I help with the Emmaus soup run in the evening. I fill up the minibus with hot and cold food, clothing and toiletries to give out to people who are rough sleeping in Gloucester. I like being in the position that I can give back and help people who are going through a difficult time.”
Being part of a community and being kind to one another gives us a sense of belonging. Gassy, sums it up as an ‘extended family’. “Joining the Emmaus Mossley community was the best thing I ever did. There’s a lot of satisfaction, a peace of mind, a sense of security and wellbeing. If it wasn’t for the support group that’s involved with this charity I don’t know where I’d be. You become a companion and gain friends, but more than that, it’s like having an extended family.”
Darren from Emmaus Dover highlights this perfectly: “Living with so many different people from different backgrounds, I’ve learnt that you shouldn’t judge people; everyone’s got a past – a story to tell. Once you get to know someone, often you find out what they’ve experienced and realise why they might be behaving in a certain way.”
Our support networks are often there when times are hard and we need mental health support. Lee, from Emmaus Coventry & Warwickshire, reinforces this point and explains how peer to peer support can really help when someone has a bad day. “It really helps to live in a community of people who’ve also had challenging times in the past. For me, it’s like a family. You’re living and working together. Everyone has their bad days and their good days but together you work it out and get through it all.”
None of this will be news to those who live and work in Emmaus communities and who will be able to recite many more examples of their own. Mental Health Awareness Week is a chance for us all to reflect on acts of kindness, given or received. What inspires me most about Emmaus is that kindness is at the heart of everything we do – enriching our own and other’s lives. As we recover from the coronavirus pandemic I hope that society chooses to follow our lead.
Please do follow the links above to read more about the stories of people at Emmaus communities across the UK. To find out more about Mental Health Awareness Week I encourage you to visit the campaign website.
Thank you for reading and best wishes,
Simon Grainge is Chief Executive of Emmaus UK. Emmaus supports more than 800 formerly homeless people across the UK, providing people with support, a home for as long as they need it and meaningful work and training. There are now 29 Emmaus communities and five Emmaus groups currently working to open new communities.