Facing loneliness and other mental health challenges is always difficult. But this year’s pandemic and lockdowns have made it much harder. Christmas can also be an especially tough time, when loneliness can feel particularly pronounced. But a local service has offered a lifeline throughout it all.
The Solace Centre, part of Equinox Care, helps to combat loneliness and isolation through social inclusion – connecting people with mental ill health. It has become a vibrant and popular community of its own, funded by Ealing Council and working in partnership with West London NHS Trust.
For 25 years, it has run an out-of-hours service that is available year-round. When we paid the centre a visit, it was described as a real lifeline and ‘safety net’ for those who use it. Before the first lockdown in March, it had opened weekday evenings and all afternoon at weekends for 105 members. Since then, things have been more complicated.
In its quarter of a century, the centre has certainly not experienced a year quite like 2020.
Staying in touch with its members has been vitally important during the lockdowns and staff have given each one twice weekly calls, providing advice and referrals for help as well as a chance for a chat. The centre’s regular newsletter has also provided a way to share important information and for members to interact.
Combating loneliness and isolation
Catherine Bingham, the senior recovery worker for Solace, spoke to us about the challenges they have all faced with the centre having to remain closed to visitors since the first lockdown began.
She said: “Solace’s difficult decision to close our building came on 22 March. There was no time to waste; we had to swing into action. Solace’s camaraderie and spirit came together to brainstorm new ways to support, unify and keep our community connected – so that no one felt isolated or was alone.
“Preparing and supporting one another to keep safe was our priority, ensuring members had enough medication, food supplies, friends and emergency service numbers which might be needed, as well as setting up twice weekly individual support calls from our Solace staff team.
“Against the backdrop of daily, unsettling, doom and gloom news and adjustments, our members showed resilience and determined strength. Why? Because, unlike the general population, over time, they had become leaders in knowing how to combat loneliness and isolation and understood these feelings far too well. This skill is not often looked for, but is acquired through facing and overcoming stigma, hardship, and difficult circumstances. We needed to generate and bolster this mental resilience, encouraging our service users to look at what they had, and how they could use and share it.”
‘Like sharing love’
“Along with our twice-weekly staff welfare checks,” continued Catherine, “we brought in a two-way, interactive, and sharing ‘Solace’s Connecting Lockdown Newsletter’ that was circulated by post and e-mail so no-one would be left out. It has been filled with members’ previously learnt tips, strategies, positivity, and skills. This, strengthened and united everyone further, helping to lighten each other’s load.
“Boosted with competitions – including our World Mental Health creative poetry and art competition judged by Jo Brand – we are now circulating over 60 emails and 55 post-outs. We will soon be sharing our Christmas edition, which will be number 14.”
Feedback on the way the centre has kept everyone in touch has been overwhelmingly positive in surveys of its members. One member wrote: “The newsletters [are] like sharing love. I really look forward to them. Very interesting to see my friends and the information is valuable – staff work really hard. Reading it removes the sadness in my heart.”
Catherine added: “We even received thanks from one member who had been on the brink of suicide, until they read an article in the newsletter. Since then, they have contributed to the newsletter themselves.
“We are also pleased to report that over the lockdown periods none of our Solace members were admitted to hospital for mental health reasons and, thankfully, we haven’t lost any of our members to COVID-19.”
Managing some Christmas togetherness
Last year, Solace members got together for a Christmas silent disco and meal. This year’s restrictions have made joint celebrations a lot harder.
But, as well as the Christmas edition of the newsletter, the twice-weekly calls are continuing and staff are enacting other plans to keep people’s spirits up.
Catherine said: “We recently started The Solace Centre’s Christmas ‘silly selfie Christmas Hat Competition’, to bring warmth and cheer to the Solace Christmas tree and we are already receiving creative, zany selfies.
“This would have been our Solace manager’s 20th year of cooking a members’ Christmas dinner and holding a party. So, rather than letting anyone down, it will be done with a twist this year. We will be preparing and hand delivering about 20 meals for those who would otherwise go without – with thanks to West Ealing’s Waitrose, which has shown ongoing support.
“With the hoped-for reduction in restrictions over Christmas, some members are going to club together for Christmas.”
Leaving a tough year behind
In responses to the centre’s surveys, members conveyed an overwhelming sense of loss at the inability to have been able to attend the centre in person – something which, to many, was an intrinsic part of their routine. When asked what they missed most, one said ‘absolutely everything’, while another very typical response was: ‘Not seeing my friends – not enough face to face contact – COVID is so restricting – not seeing the staff – they are always helping and it’s such a happy place.’
But, with a COVID-19 vaccine on the horizon in 2021, Solace will be able to look forward to returning to its normal service.
Catherine said: “We continue to work day-by-day supporting Solace members. And, looking ahead, we are hoping to re-open our building as soon as it is safe to do so – albeit in a smaller, socially-distanced way until, once again, we can open our doors to welcome all visitors as we used to.”
Since 2016, the council has leased the Solace Centre to Equinox Care, part of the Social Interest Group. The charity provides bespoke person-centred social and health care solutions to support people with the most complex needs and challenges.