How one of our churches provides a mental health sanctuary

This week there has been a national spotlight on mental health issues as the Church of England reported that priests are increasingly dealing with mental health crises among their parishioners. We visited 'The Sanctuary' in Widnes to see how it helps the community

Walking into ‘The Sanctuary’ for the first time one of the first things that struck me was the warm welcome I received. A total stranger, I was greeted with smiles and the offer of a cup of tea and a cake within about 30 seconds. A gentle hum of pleasant chatter came from the eclectic crowd congregating around the tables and the kitchen serving hatch. Various activities are taking place – colouring, board games and general chat as well as private 1-2-1 sessions for people who had booked in to see the mental health counsellor. Taking a seat next to three gentlemen who were playing Scrabble, I was soon invited to join in their conversation while I waited to interview Rev Laura Leatherbarrow who set the project up just over a year ago.

The meeting place for this community café is in the church building itself, which built in the 1800’s is a very traditional Gothic Revival style. Rev Laura explains why she chose to open The Sanctuary in the actual church building itself rather than in the church hall or another community centre. “I researched the area to find out what the needs of the people where. I didn’t just presume it was mental health, I went out and I asked shopkeepers, I knocked on doors, I asked the people of the community what the church could do for them. It was amazing the number of people who thought that St Ambrose was a Catholic church or they thought we were closed. That broke my heart, hearing people say that all they saw of this building was closed doors.

I decided that The Sanctuary must be in the church itself for the very reason that people thought it was closed. I wanted to change people’s perception that the church never does anything, all they do is sit in high places – these were the sorts of opinions that were coming from the local area. The reasoning behind the name of our café ‘Sanctuary’ was that I wanted to bring people into a presence where they could see faith being lived every single day. To show our faith in a compassionate way that may allow Christ’s light to shine in their lives without any expectation.

Our two straplines are #extravaganthospitality and #lovethyneighbour. I really wanted to make sure that we feed people literally as well as spiritually. There is always plenty of homemade cakes and hot food that caters for all dietary requirements. We want to make sure everyone feels welcome and we don’t charge a penny. There is just a donations pot for people to be able to give what they can afford to. Sometimes the pot can have a couple of fivers thrown in, sometimes it could be 90p. These people are living with quite a lot of deprivation. They need somewhere to go that they can feel normal. We have people who come with learning disabilities with their carers, older people who are lonely, young Mums, people who are struggling with their mental health and well-being for whatever reason. We have had extreme cases of women suffering domestic violence and abuse that have managed to disclose it here because they have felt safe enough to do so.

This project isn’t about throwing odd services across and trying to get people to attend church, that is not what this is about. This is about serving people. We have a very great mix from young to old. You witness acts such as older ladies teaching younger mums with bumps how to crochet. God is amazing the way it is working that way and that it gives people that chance to feel part of a family.

There are four volunteer helpers with me each week. People do grab me throughout the morning for one to one chats and I give health advice. From day one I wanted us to be part of the community, working with the community. I knew I didn’t have the level of expertise in mental health specifically, even with my health service background as a nurse of 26 years so I got in contact with the charity MIND and we now have a MIND support worker who comes every week. Since January we have been given our own NHS Mental Health Counsellor. I can refer people to her directly or they can self-refer. This is quite unusual practice as most people have to go through their GP. The issue in this area is there is a wait of 12 – 17 weeks for a referral to mental health services from going to the GP and most people have to travel outside of the area to Runcorn or St Helens. 

As well as the mental health service we offer, there are a number of well-being activities: We have a beautician that comes and offers treatments free of charge. We have had a financial money management course – ‘Cash Smart, Credit Savvy’, a mindfulness course, in May we will be running a cognitive behaviour course looking at negative and positive behaviours ‘Living Life Well’.”

What is next for The Sanctuary? Read part 2 next week.