Being freelance has many joys. One is being able to follow-up interesting invitations as quickly as I please. I met Sarah and Thomas Tobias at the Design in Mental Health Conference on 19 May 2015. Her description of The Dragon Cafe was really appealing. So yesterday I found myself there. It happens between 12.00 – 20.00 every Monday in the crypt of St George The Martyr Church in Southwark, London SE1. And it is like nothing else I have ever experienced.
In two large basement rooms plus limited outside space, an average of 220 people a week drop by to take part, free, in many activities including art groups, various dance classes – yesterday was a brilliant African dance session – Tai Chi, mindfulness, chess, well-being sessions, massage, creative writing, or just chilling out. Some chat, others sit or lie quietly on beanbags. Some are clearly not as well as others, but everyone attends as an equal voluntary member. I have signed up, as have 4,500 others who have attended since the cafe first opened in October 2012.
An important part of being a cafe is the food, which fills the air with fragrant herbs and spices to tempt any appetite, served with care on china plates and eaten at comfortable tables kept clean and fresh by volunteer staff. I ate a delicate cauliflower and vegetable stew with brown rice. It cost £5. I could have had soup with artisan bread for £2, tortilla with a bowl of salad for £4 or beans on toast for £1. I also spotted brownies, flapjacks and scones, all freshly made. For many members, this is the only opportunity in the week to eat home-cooked food.
The cafe is organised by Mental Fight Club, a charity which found its roots in the work of poet Ben Okri who himself was inspired by William Blake, and by Blake himself, whose words taken from Jerusalem I have used as the title of this blog. The charity embraces difference, and seeks to work in a complementary way with statutory services. They have achieved funding from the Maudsley Charity, Guy and St Thomas’ Charity and Southwark CCG to keep going despite swingeing cuts to voluntary services elsewhere. Long may they continue, because they are enabling people to live well and stay well, and to cope with life at times when they are less than well.
Increasingly, I am drawn towards magical realism in my creative reading and writing. Something Matt Haig said the previous day on Twitter chimed with what I heard and felt yesterday:
We need to open our minds to how we help people. I believe strongly in the need for NHS mental health services to be properly commissioned, funded and supported. But the NHS cannot and should not do everything. The voluntary sector, when it is good as The Dragon Cafe, can make the difference between existence and enrichment and fulfilment.
And it can teach the NHS how to do things. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Mental Fight Club has been working with senior psychiatrists in training to provide a safe space for them to explore the dilemmas and trauma they experience in the course of their work. If you didn’t see Alison Cameron talking about what happens if you don’t support staff who experience trauma, I highly recommend her session here:
What Alison said made me think very hard about how we do, and don’t, support staff who daily deal with matters of life and death, and sometimes feel traumatised because they cannot achieve what they consider to be optimal care. Inspection, standard setting, performance management, serious incident reporting, root cause analysis, NICE guidance and all the rest are, may I say, not the whole or even the most important part of the answer. Only by recognising the needs of those doing the caring, and meeting these in ways that are meaningful to them will we truly design compassion into public services.
Do visit The Dragon Cafe. You will see what I mean.
“I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant land.”