St Margaret’s Centre working to improve mental health in Durham


The president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists has called the pandemic era a time of severe “mental health crisis”. While Durham University students can reach out to their college welfare officers and Durham Nightline, many of the University’s support services are overwhelmed. St Margaret’s Centre is an activity, support, and training hub for adults with a wide range of mental health problems, that hopes to change this.

By partnering with Durham Minds, St Margaret’s Centre intends to offer peer support groups to students this upcoming year. Since the start of the pandemic, the Centre has become increasingly popular. Upon the Centre’s re-opening in July 2021, there was an influx of new attendees with a total of 41 new individuals referred. The vast majority of these had been heavily impacted by the pandemic. Many attendees, new and old, struggled with symptoms of agoraphobia, finding it difficult to be in a social space with other people as we return to ‘normal’ life. Some have not returned at all due to concerns for their health.

Those who attend St Margaret’s Centre can be self-referred or referred by statutory services like mental health support teams and care coordinators. The Centre states that the main disadvantage of self-referrals is that there is no statutory team to provide comprehensive care plans. A care plan would detail someone’s history, diagnoses, and triggers — without this information, dealing with mental health problems, like agoraphobia, can become more difficult.

Nevertheless, by accepting self-referrals the Centre recognises how difficult reaching out for support can be and tries to make it easier by removing the barrier of statutory services. St Margaret’s Centre focuses on recovery as well as prevention and thus believes that people in need of support should not have to wait to receive a formal diagnosis, referral or assessment before attending. Ultimately, the Centre finds that their personal, non-clinical approach helps people feel comfortable sharing their experiences. This has allowed staff to build close relationships with the attendees.

34% of full-time students are experiencing loneliness as a result of the pandemic

To meet increasing mental health demands, the future of adult mental health services is shifting to an alliance model throughout Durham. This has led to St Margaret’s Centre working closely with seven other mental health organisations to cover needs like housing, bereavement counselling and training throughout the county. In total 105 people are currently registered at St Margaret’s Centre alone, with most people attending at least once a week.

In a study completed by the Mental Health Foundation, 34% of full-time students are experiencing loneliness as a result of the pandemic. In order to escape social isolation, St Margaret’s Centre introduced a Chatty Café scheme to ensure that the local community has a place to go for a warm welcome and conversation. The space offers people a chance to have a chat about how they are feeling and what is going on in their lives, or maybe just what was on TV the night before. In an average week, the café sees 60-70 customers, but the Centre is hoping to grow this number over the next year.

The centre recognises how difficult reaching out for support can be

Volunteers play a vital role in the success of most mental health services from welfare officers at Durham colleges to shop assistants at mental health charity shops like Mind, and St Margaret’s Centre is no different. Volunteers help to keep the Centre running smoothly by running activities such as gardening groups and weekly textiles groups (unofficially known as ‘stitch and bitch’). The Centre hope their volunteering scheme is mutually beneficial as they help volunteers build up their skills through work experience and hands-on training in their café and craft shop areas. 

Everyone needs to take care of their mental health and even if you do not experience mental health problems yourself, you probably know someone who does. With the right support, those suffering from their mental health can blossom in their confidence and self-esteem, develop incredible talents that they never knew they had, and form strong friendships at the Centre. This is one mental health organisation, amongst a number in Durham, which is helping the County through the mental health crisis of the pandemic and beyond.

Image credit: St Margaret’s Centre

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