Mental Health Organisations: At your service

Many Minds (Photo: Jack Offord)

Organisations are finding creative ways to boost wellbeing across the city in the midst of increasing demand for mental health support. Hollye Kirkcaldy speaks to the people on the frontline to hear how these services are transforming lives for the better.

We’re in the eye of a perfect mental health storm. A devastating combination of the long-term impact of the covid pandemic, the more recent cost-of-living crisis and endless NHS waiting lists has left thousands struggling to access support for poor mental health. According to recent NHS figures, 124,800 adults across the south west have been referred to community-based mental health and learning disability services but are still waiting for their second appointment, a figure that’s gone up by 25% in the last 12 months alone. Demand is surging but with people waiting months to access NHS Talking Therapies, it is falling to Bristol charities to create much-needed safe spaces within local communities for mental health and emotional wellbeing support.

Human contact is important”

91 Ways to Build A Global City is a social enterprise based in Bristol which connects disadvantaged communities through the power of food, including supper clubs and cooking classes. For founder Kalpna Woolf, bringing people together over food is transformative for mental wellbeing: “We always say that sharing a proper plate of food is an act of kindness,” she says. “You’re reaching out and showing them you care. It really makes a difference. I don’t care if people come to our sessions and don’t want to learn to cook. I care that they’ve come to have a chat with somebody. Human contact is important.”

It’s an ethos shared by mental health charity Many Minds, which facilitates creative drama workshops and theatre performances to support its members who have a broad range of mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression and schizophrenia.

“There is a whole body of research to show that the arts have a positive impact on well-being,” says co-founder Olivia Ware. “The space that we provide is specifically designed by and around our members. It allows people to be themselves, allows them to be creative, provides a release which doesn’t necessarily involve having to always talk about how you’re feeling.”

Kolab Studios (Photo: Alastair Brookes/Many Minds)

Ware shares the story of a talented pianist who attended the Many Minds workshops but was reluctant to appear in their upcoming performance due to anxiety. “We were exploring ideas of how he could be involved,” she says. “Members came up with the idea of performing with their heads inside boxes, doing these amazing movements along the catwalk, and this man ended up playing the piano from inside one of these boxes. Visually it was just amazing; it was a great, great piece of art coming out of the simple fact that he just didn’t want to be seen.”

A joyful place
Tabby Rodney is a former member of Many Minds who credits the charity for supporting her through long periods of mental ill health.

“I had become totally isolated, I was just alone,” she says. “Of all the charities I’ve been involved with, it was the only one that stuck. It’s a joyful place. We deal with the really hard topics, but the space is so safe. Working towards the goal of a performance kept me motivated. I didn’t think I would ever be well enough to do the things that I loved, and they supported me through that and actually helped me to get back into university.”

After graduating, Rodney became a Many Minds Trustee. “I was just looking for any way that I could give back because they’ve done so much for me. Not only is the charity helpful to the people who are struggling, but we also make art which can change people’s minds about mental illness.

“It can make it less frightening, it can make it funny even. Many Minds has made me want to be an advocate rather than a victim.”

Many Minds has seen a 30% increase in members year on year since the pandemic, as Ware explains. “We’re finding that more people aren’t meeting criteria or thresholds for NHS treatment or they’re sat on waiting lists. GPs want places to refer people to because they’re not able to help. So therefore, we’re seeing members join us with really complex, diverse needs.”

Charities too though are feeling the effects of that perfect storm, with difficulties balancing the increased demand with tough fundraising circumstances.

We’re pushing boundaries and the impact on our members is to give them confidence, more resilience”

“Last year was quite a challenge for us in terms of fundraising, and yes, there are now more people whose needs we are trying to meet,” Ware says. “There are cuts everywhere, people are being more frugal and we hear from funders that they would love to be able to support everyone but they can’t and I understand that. For us, it’s about careful planning – if we don’t get the money, we ask how we can provide services in a different way that still serves our members?”

Reduced income has left charities needing to be creative with how they help. In response to losing access to performance space, Many Minds started organising trips to exhibitions and shows for its members. “We went to the Royal West of England Academy (RWA) and the lifts were broken that day, so we had a great time doing spontaneous mini performances around the theme of barriers to access. The RWA was intrigued and has invited us to do a performance in May as part of its These Mad Hybrids exhibition. We’re pushing boundaries, and the impact on our members is to give them confidence, more resilience, more self-worth, a bit more ownership and empowerment.”

Creating financial sustainability
Many Minds is not the only charity in the region who is finding it tough post-covid. Research from Voscur, which supports charitable and community organisations in Bristol, indicates that 40% of local community organisations were unsure last year if they would be able to continue delivering services over the next 12 months. Small charities are particularly at risk, discovering that they now need to find ways to diversify their income.

The Harbour, based in the city centre, provides counselling to those experiencing terminal illness or bereavement. During the pandemic, the team saw a significant reduction in available funding from trusts and foundations and, as a result, decided to introduce a fee for services for the first time in its 32-year history.

“It was one of the few ways we could create a sustainable financial future for the charity,” explains Natasha Davies, CEO. “We’ve tried really hard not to create financial barriers so we now have a pay-what-you-can-afford model. Currently about 15% of our clients pay the full fee for therapy, about 15% pay nothing and everyone else sits on a sliding scale in between.”

Working hand-in-hand with other community organisations is another way in which small charities can extend their impact. Davies sees the benefits of embedding the specialist therapy provided by The Harbour with other community-based services, and considers this to be a key path for the charity in the coming years. “For me, small charities can play a role in using their expertise in partnership with others. It’s not about trying to do everything ourselves, it’s about working in ways we can have the biggest impact,” she explains.

Changes Bristol

The Harbour has recently started to expand its therapy services into disadvantaged communities across Bristol. “Knowle West Health Park runs a bereavement peer support group which is well attended by people who want to share their experiences,” explains Davies. “The challenge however is when someone new joins the group, they are often at a much earlier, more raw and more complex stage of their grief process and they need a dedicated specialist space to work through that so that they aren’t overwhelmed by the group who are further along their bereavement journey. We can now provide that as complementary support.” She considers it a “transformational project” for the charity as it moves towards becoming a more community-based organisation.

Walking and talking
Changes Bristol provides community-based peer-to-peer support to those suffering from mental distress across the Greater Bristol area. Alongside support groups and telephone befriending, Changes runs a range of community services, including mindful art sessions and its popular Walk & Talk sessions.

“Walk & Talk was something we started post-covid when we were considering how we start mixing socially and talking to each other in person again, “ Alessandra Gava, Changes co-director, says. “I thought it would tail off as people got back to doing normal things, but it just constantly grows; we now run two sessions each week on a Wednesday morning in different locations across the city. It’s very natural, it really is for people who need to feel that they’re with somebody and are connected, but without any pressure to talk if you don’t want to.”

Last year, the charity collaborated with the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft to create a huge mural celebrating peer support, which brings together those with lived experience of mental ill-health and those currently experiencing mental distress to create a safe and empowering space. “It’s somebody who isn’t going to judge what you’re saying, you can say whatever is there, no explanation needed,” Gava explains. “Having that space to talk also helps people to process and reflect why they might be feeling those ways, and work through it while feeling safe. In our peer support groups, there’s no hierarchy, no professional/patient relationships, it’s a level playing field and we’re all humans. We’re all making ourselves vulnerable together.”

Helen Sermon volunteers as a Changes peer support meeting facilitator and runs a weekly session in Bedminster. A counsellor by profession, Sermon believes that the safe community which peer-to-peer support creates benefits the volunteers as well as the group members: “You can feel so isolated and lonely when dealing with your own challenges,” she says. “But when you sit with a group of people and they share their stories, you just feel held. The sharing of stories is so powerful, it’s that connection.”

Changes Bristol is taking part in The Big Give Kind Mind Campaign in May. Follow them on social media for updates or visit For more information on Many Minds, to donate or explore opportunities to become a Trustee, visit To learn more about the counselling services provided by The Harbour, visit