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Improving Mental Health by keeping nature in mind

In this Women’s Lives, Women’s Voices feature, Inishowen woman Michaela Mc Daid shares her extensive personal and professional experience of mental health and how this led her to Ecotherapy.  She also outlines Nature in Mind courses and why the facilitation she provides in Ecotherapy is so popular in the North West.


It’s Personal

Mental health has profoundly impacted all areas of my personal life.  At 16 I lost my only sister Katrina to suicide. She called me and I resuscitated her, but she still died.  She was 18.  By age 20 I still hadn’t grieved the loss of my sister, or talked about the trauma and tragedy of her death. When I sought professional help, I was diagnosed with depression and prescribed anti- depressants.  This made it easier not to talk, and just keep going.  So, that’s what I did.

In the 20 years that followed I moved house 11 times between Donegal, London, Derry and Donegal again. Teenage pregnancy, single parenthood, financial pressure, an abusive relationship and addiction were all life experiences that layered stress on top of my vulnerable emotional health.  There was also more grief; I lost my Mum in my 20’s and Dad in my 30’s.  My constant underlying feeling was of being utterly alone.

During this time, ‘depression’ was a very private battle. I was consumed by self loathing, often numb with sadness and felt completely disconnected. But I only ever cried inwardly, screamed silently and hurt myself in secret.  To the outside world, I was a bubbly fitness instructor, motivating others through high energy aerobics classes with a wide smile and perfect physique.  I also returned to education and excelled academically, graduating top of my class and earning a scholarship for post graduate studies.  I was a loving and conscientious Mother, managing a well kept home. I was also a sociable and popular friend, always the ‘together one’ that others came to for support.    

As a patient of mental health services, I was compliant and co-operative. I took medications as prescribed and engaged fully with psychiatrists, psychotherapists, mental health nurses and counsellors. I attended support group meetings and educated myself with countless self help books.  I fully accepted that I was ‘unwell’ and would have done anything to get better.

Then, in my 30’s I experienced elation and psychosis, was re-diagnosed bipolar and prescribed lithium.  With this diagnosis came a sense of relief that maybe I had previously been misdiagnosed, so now things would get better.  Things got worse; the highs got higher and the lows got lower. This intensity coupled with sheer exhaustion, resulted in more frequent and commanding suicidal thoughts. Twice, I was hospitalised for my own safety. My ever changing prescription now consisted of daily anti-depressant, mood stabiliser, anti – psychotics, anti- anxiety and sleeping medications.  I wasn’t forty yet.


It’s Professional

Running parallel to this personal experience was a very successful career, being described as ‘high functioning’ meant both were possible.  I knew my calling was to work in mental health, but wasn’t attracted to psychiatry, nursing or clinical settings, I was equally unsure of a role in psychotherapy or counselling.  My heart was in the community and I believed passionately in education as empowerment.

I worked throughout Northern Ireland and Donegal for Aware, Action Mental Health, National Learning Network and freelance; devising and delivering educational programmes, facilitating support groups and voluntarily advocating for other service users.  In these various roles, I was privileged to work with the broadest cross section of our society;  urban and rural, all age groups, in schools, universities, community settings, churches, ethnic minority groups, traveller projects, LGBTQ+, the prison population, disability groups, domestic violence survivors, sports clubs and businesses.  

The appetite for knowledge on the subject was striking, and listening attentively to peoples’ experiences of mental health and illness meant that I learned as much as I taught. ‘Being heard’ and ‘feeling connected’ were the most common responses to the question ‘what helped?’  This resonated deeply with me.  There was another theme that I heard over and over again:    “Gardening . . . . pets . . . .fishing . . . . the park . .. the beach . . . outdoors.”  It was nature. Without direction, irrespective of background, people repeatedly told me that they were drawn to nature for easing mental and emotional distress. 

I reviewed my own mental health history and the correlation was equally strong.  When I struggled in London, I went to Hampstead Heath. When I struggled in Derry I walked my dog on the country roads outside the city.  Even when I was an inpatient on suicide watch in Gransha, my greatest motivation for discharge was to get to the woods beside the hospital!  The more dis-eased I was, the stronger the pull to be in green outdoor spaces. 

Having exhausted every external treatment available to me, I chose for the first time to consciously tune in to my intuition, and let it guide my healing.  I moved to the countryside and immersed myself in nature; gardening, hill-walking and sea swimming. I didn’t know then that what I was doing had a name; Ecotherapy.  The results were incredible.  Within three years I was entirely medication free, with no depression, elation, anxiety or psychosis. I was enjoying better mental and physical health than I had ever known, or thought possible.

I was mindful that my experience was unique to me and that medication and talking therapies were beneficial for many. But remained convinced that reconnecting with nature is a powerful, accessible and free way to improve mental health, yet this value isn’t reflected in services.  

With serendipity I found Solas Donegal, a HSE mental health recovery programme using a model of walking, talking and listening in green spaces.  Having operated successfully in Falcarragh for many years, Solas opened a part time service in Buncrana in early 2019 and I was employed as a peer support worker.  Completing Ecotherapy training gave me the history, framework, references, evidence and language for what I already knew; nature heals.  This isn’t some hippy dippy, tree hugging nonsense, or just something that works for me. This is an evidence based, globally recognised approach to mental health care that predates both psychotherapy and the medical model.


It Just Makes Sense

Through Solas, I attended the Critical Perspectives in Mental Health Conference in University College Cork which brought together pioneering projects offering user centred, non – medical, context and trauma- informed ways of helping people experiencing mental distress and crisis.   These projects were centre stage instead of being sidelined as ‘alternative’, as they had been in the countless conferences I had attended throughout my career.  As well as the personal stories, I was captivated by the multi – disciplinary, world renowned specialists presenting academic research, irrefutable evidence and statistics that challenged the current system and dominance of the medical model.  The language was that of education, empathy, compassion, holding space, co-production, peer-support, creativity, community and open dialogue.  All that I had felt, experienced and believed was not only being taken seriously, but was recognised as an effective approach to mental health care.   Now I had a clear direction for my purpose and passion.

The success of Solas further underlined my learning.   Participants are referred to the programme from within the HSE mental health team, so are already ‘in the system’ receiving treatment and support for (often chronic) mental illness.  Without a doubt; walking, talking and listening in green spaces was having a hugely positive impact on their mental health.  My background in the community sector meant my focus remained on a proactive and preventative approach through education, empowerment and building resilience, before a person became unwell, and before they were in the system.


I devised ‘Nature in Mind’ courses with a view to supporting people with Ecotherapy, no matter where they were on the mental health spectrum.   A person with good mental health, taking the initiative to apply self care, or a person with a diagnosis of a mental illness and currently using medication and/ or talking therapies would both benefit, so why make a distinction? There is no waiting list, assessment, analysis, diagnosis or side effects.  These courses are not support groups, counselling or psychotherapy.  It is much simpler than that. It is human connection, stillness and creating time and space for the healing power of nature and the outdoors.

I’m not the therapist – nature is! The relationship between participant and nature already exists, but may have been ignored or undervalued. As a facilitator, I highlight and strengthen this relationship in three ways: education, experience and connection. I provide mental health education and a broad knowledge of Ecotherapy in a relaxed and informal way, without a PowerPoint presentation!  This explains why nature is good for us.  How nature is good for us is highlighted through the experience of forest bathing, sea swimming, hiking, guided walks and woodland retreats. 

For longer courses I also connect groups with co- facilitators who have a deeper knowledge and expertise in a specific area such as horticulture, foraging, animal assisted therapy, fly fishing, care farming and bushcraft.  Courses for specific groups are imbedded in their local community, forging relationships that are sustainable after the course has ended. Long term attitudinal change is also supported through the ‘Keeping Nature in Mind’ element, which gives advice, discussion and practice to encourage small and practical ways of embracing nature every day, in an urban environment, and in participants own homes. 

Group connection happens very naturally in the right environment, with the right facilitation. Time and space is held for participants to talk to each other and me, because simply having your voice heard is a vital part of emotional wellbeing. This is increasingly lost to hectic lifestyles, technology and social isolation.  Within mental health support services, a ‘listening ear’ is often devalued in pursuit of analysis, record – keeping, diagnosis and intervention.  A group dynamic is even more powerful when balanced with time for safe solitary reflection and an atmosphere contusive to participants only ever contributing as much as is comfortable for them. 

Respectful that for some people, a group setting is always difficult, I also offer one to one sessions.  These can be used as an introduction prior to joining a group, as extra support whilst part of the group, or as a preferable alternative.  Meeting people wherever they are up to is not only critical for meaningful engagement, it is also kind.

For many, the experience of corona virus and lockdown has led to a renewed appreciation of the simple things in life.  Ecotherapy celebrates simplicity by stripping back the layers of our lives that can be so stifling, allowing us to breathe deeply.  I believe that the hugely positive interest in Donegal is partly due to the accessibility of beautiful outdoor spaces. It is also the ‘common sense’ part, that connecting to nature, each other and ourselves makes us feel better. What could be more important than that?


Contact Details

Email:          michaela.ecotherapy@gmail.com

Tel:               (0044) 7517936613

Facebook   https://www.facebook.com/MichaelaMcDaid.Ecotherapy

Instagram   https://www.instagram.com/withnatureinmind/


Remember you are not alone, there are people you can talk to. If you or any one you know needs some support for your mental health, please know you can find support with the following services;

Pieta House

24/7 Freephone Tel: 1800 247 247  or Text HELP to 51444

Professional one-to-one therapeutic service to people who are in suicidal distress, those who engage in self-harm, and those bereaved by suicide. All services are provided free of charge and no referral is needed.


Samaritans

Tel: 116 123

Email: jo@samaritans.ie

Samaritans provides confidential non-judgemental support, 24 hours a day for people experiencing feelings of distress or despair, including those which could lead to suicide.


NCCWN Donegal are always looking for women to share their stories and looking for women to write features on topics of their choice which we will profile as part of our Women’s Lives, Women’s Voices’ series.

Big Community Clean Up

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Women around the world are increasingly becoming recognised as agents of change in supporting climate action and environmental work. Over the years, we have met many inspiring women in Donegal leading the charge in supporting environmental issues. In our latest ‘women’s lives, women’s voices’ feature, Donegal Town local Geraldine McBrearty shares with us her journey to setting up the “Big Community Clean Up” group in Donegal and talks about why it’s so important to keep trying to make an environmental difference.


 

Hi Everyone, thank you for taking the time to read this article.  In 2016, I founded a small Facebook group called “Big Community Clean Up“.  Its aim was to rally my friends and neighbours to get out for a few hours for the summer months and clean up our beautiful area as much as we could.

 

What inspired me to do this? Well it was a combination of the older generation and also my children who both always inspire me in all aspects of my life. During one of my walks to my local beach at Drumbeg, I noticed two wonderful ladies in their 60’s walking towards me. I had the pleasure of knowing these ladies many years previously whilst working in Magee of Donegal and I loved meeting them out and about.


 

To my shock, they were laden down with plastic bottles, old rope, part of an old mud flap and a discarded bicycle rim to name but a few.  They were halfway across the beach and literally could not carry another item.  They stopped to chat with me and I offered to carry what I could for them.  They informed me that they regularly picked up rubbish on the beach. What legends!!

 

I was gutted that these two amazing ladies had to go to such lengths to clean up our area. Equally worrying was the danger posed to my children from discarded rubbish and broken bottles. They would often ask “Mum, why is it so dirty here”.  It broke my heart.  I decided to organise a few close friends and neighbours to help me out on regular clean-ups.


 

It was hard work especially as high tides and storms would wash in huge amounts of rubbish onto the shore.  One such beach we cleaned, Matthews Strand, had to be tackled in an almost military manner.  We all had to line up and inch slowly along the beach picking up the endless waste that lay there.  By the end of the few hours cleaning we had made a noticeable difference, everyone was so proud of themselves. The amount of rubbish lifted was so vast that we had to call in the help of the local fishing company MOWI to help us take the rubbish to a designated lifting area for the council to remove.  Just imagine that!

I try to make outings fun, especially for the little children, so I organised on a couple of occasions for an ice cream van to pull up after the clean-up and gave an ice cream to everyone.  It was the least that they all deserved. This was very kindly paid for by the generosity of MOWI and also local councillor Noel Jordan who are always on hand to lend support to the group.


 

During the Covid-19 pandemic our main supporters, Clean Coasts, have been unable to organise clean-ups around the country due to travel and group restrictions.  However, I decided a few weeks ago to approach my group members to see if we could at least get out with our family members within the 2km area and clean as much as we could.  It worked out fantastically and a lot of rubbish along the roadside and in the ditches, was cleared up before it was covered by the growing grass of Spring.

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A socially distanced clean up

Our next mission is to get onto the beaches for a much needed clean up and to implement social distancing and some safety measures.  It’s so important to keep trying to make a difference.  The council and local litter warden are so helpful and I appreciate their regular support.  I believe that any effort at all is so worth it and will make a difference if we can all get out and make it a part of our daily lives to pick up the rubbish.


 

Our future

Maria Murphy and her grandkids out and about cleaning up the area around their home on our recent clean up.

The effort we put in today will benefit our children and relatives in the future. What really stands out for me is that there are so many people like my older friends who are out selflessly lifting other people’s rubbish.  We can join them and it makes the burden they are under a little lighter.  That is why I try and get out when I can to lift rubbish.  Thanks so much to everyone in the community who helps out.  It is very much appreciated and every little helps.  Thank you.

 

To date the group has been a great way to rally people together and to showcase the difference a clean-up makes. People can ask to join the bigcommunitycleanup group or contact their local council who will supply pickers and bags for their own clean ups. Moving forward I’d love to get the beaches cleaned up for the summer but we will have to navigate the social distancing restrictions. Even if each family clean up their own areas and beaches it would make a massive difference.

 


NCCWN Donegal are always looking for women to share their stories and looking for women to write features on topics of their choice which we will profile as part of our Women’s Lives, Women’s Voices’ series.

The Ripple Effect: Making Change in a Changing World

In this ‘Women’s Live’s, Women’s Voice’ feature Gortahork local Joanne Butler shares her journey of becoming an environment educator and setting up the social enterprise OURganic Gardens an outdoor green space focused on food, sustainability, and horticulture. While also reflecting on her learning experience and the importance of embracing sustainable living and making small changes to support the environment.

 


16 Years ago I moved to Donegal, coming for the big smoke of Derry to a relatively rural area and never having grown a vegetable in my life. The following year in 2004 having tasted my first cabbage straight from the field, I asked my landlord at the time for a drill and bought my first seeds. In 2008 my husband and I bought an old cottage with a wonderful view in Gort a’ Choirce. We carefully restored the house for myself, my husband and my (then only) daughter to live in.

Three years later now with 3 children we started to slowly work on our 4 acre garden at this stage I was already growing some of our own food  for a number years but,  I still  was not really aware of where our food comes, thinking back on it now, I was living in a bubble, a nice cosy ‘good life’ bubble as we had observed the land for a number of years (being a bit busy with the kids) we now felt confident to start working on the plans we made.

 


First things first we wanted to clear the land as much as possible and as natural as possible, so we enlisted the help of a few friends, we enlisted the help of some pigs and they got straight to work clearing the ground for us. In 2013 my local community group Pobail Le Chéile asked me to run a Community Garden, it pushed my boundaries and enabled me to work with people in my local community, we shared tips, stories and food.

 

Coming initially from a background always doing some sort of community work I wanted to put together a programme of events that reconnected the links between the food we grow, the food we eat and the people we feed.  We ended the year with a harvest festival, inviting people from all over the area to come together to celebrate food and enjoy the experience of coming together in a social setting. This sparked the flame and OURganic Gardens was born.

 

That winter I attended many courses and events around the country connected with community gardening, I joined the community garden network and completed my FETAC level 6 train the trainer. I put together a community garden course working with local people growing, cooking and connecting with each other.

 


I then started to look beyond just the gardening aspect of it , outside the ‘bubble’, I wanted to bring more than just healthy eating into the classes, I wanted  to show people the impacts of what we do here now, locally and how it will affect other people in the future and Globally.

In February 2014, I began a FETAC level 4 in Global Development with Donegal ChangeMakers, this opened doors I didn’t even know existed. It took me on a journey of learning that not only burst that bubble but entered me into a whole new world of conscious thinking. Hearing the shocking, hard hitting facts I learnt left me feeling overwhelmed to say the least. We looked at the developing countries and how our lives here, affect their lives there. And then more than ever this word CHANGE started to resonate deep within.


 

I went on to complete a tutor facilitator course and I remember hearing  more and more disturbing  insights into the global state of play, where we were at with our natural environment. I had heard enough, I left the course early on the last day barely unable to breath …. I had heard a lot …. I thought to myself … What could I possibly do in any way that could make one ounce of impact in the world today. In tears I wept, for the peoples who’s lives that our choices are destroying, the unfair food trades that are dealt. For the lack of control that we have over large companies that wreak havoc on our food and the environment.

 

But it was then that for me the defining moment came. And it was around that time that the ripple effect, for me came into play. I realised that what we do here, now and the choices we make, while at the time may feel like it’s only a tiny drop in a puddle. But if we allow this drop to affect everything it meets, then in turn this drop creates the possibility to reach all of the ocean. Even the smallest changes we make can affect the people around us.


“For me community gardening and teaching about growing local food became my drop”

 

Since then I have worked with lots of different groups in community gardens and Community Gardens Ireland. Fast Forward four years and the more that I left home to work with people about sustainable living, I realised that I was not being sustainable myself, I was driving all over the county and beyond and not taking time out for me, my family and my garden. So since the beginning of 2018 I took the decision to start to work from my home garden in Gortahork. To start a social enterprise that will show people how and why I do it.

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I have since discovered permaculture which is set of ethics and principles that help me understand nature and work with it rather than against it.

 

EARTH CARE – PEOPLE CARE – AND FAIR SHARE

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When I work with groups now we talk about the nature of our global food system. A system where the fruit, vegetables, and herbs found in grocery stores have often been grown hundreds of miles from our kitchens and packed, shipped, distributed, and displayed, all while being refrigerated, this is a process that can wreak havoc not only on the environment but on the flavour and nutrients.

To talk about how growing a simple bag of salad naturally at home can not only cut down on your chemical intake, but in terms of the water it takes to grow the vegetable from seed to bag. In a country like Kenya where water charges are literally costing the earth. As most companies’ triple wash their salads at packaging point, we are literally running the well dry and that doesn’t even take in the transport.

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To learn about how only a few generations ago, most of the food on the dinner table had been growing in gardens only hours before it was served. While it would be a full-time job these days to feed your family this way, it’s surprisingly easy and fun to grow some of the staples on your grocery list and it saves a whole lot of air miles in between.


 

 

We follow the principles as best we can. We observe nature, use and value diversity, produce no waste and use small and slow solutions. Now me and my family have taken it one step further and have looked at these permaculture principles in all our aspects of life at home. From saving our rainwater, building with natural materials, managing our waste materials and using renewable resources we are hoping to show people how they can live more sustainable lives on a home scale basis.

69911756_2406689436035154_6369487674503331840_oI now work with a fantastic team at OURganic Gardens and during 2019 we ran successful  courses in Permaculture, Horticulture and social and therapeutic gardening. We have set up volunteer days and community garden co-operative sessions. We have done numerous walks and talks around the land and we have even set up a small stall at the house providing surplus vegetables to the community with an honesty box to help keep the garden going.

This year we plan to do more of the same with some extra workshops and further development on the land. Who knows what route our learning together will take at OURganic Gardens, but one thing I do know and  that’s the more and more people we can get involved in our garden project then the more and more people that we can get thinking about their own ripple effects and in the near future we look forward to a tidal wave of hope from all of the ocean!

Go Raibh Maith Agat

 


Adapting to Change

Joanne is currently doing a series of online live facebook videos on Sundays under the title #GrowTogetherDonegal check it out here 

 

 


NCCWN Donegal Women’s Network are always looking for women to share their stories and looking for women to write features on topics of their choice which we will profile as part of our Women’s Lives, Women’s Voices’ series.

Getting to Zero Waste

Cloth Sanitary Protection (CSP) is a return to what our grandmother's and great grandmother's used. These are colourful and comfortable and above all reliable. (1)

This feature is part of the NCCWN Donegal Women’s Network, ‘Women’s Lives, Women’s Voices’ series. Written by Mary Lane to highlight the need for us all to play a role in reducing our waste. This is the second in a two part feature by Mary who reflects on her experience of becoming aware of the concept of Zero Waste and how she has managed to bring a zero waste lifestyle into her family home.


I first became aware of the concept of Zero Waste in 2016, when I was expecting my first child and was researching breastfeeding and cloth nappies online. I’ve always been pretty frugal and I didn’t want to waste money week after week on disposable nappies or formula and contraptions associated with infant feeding which had always seemed so gimmicky to me.

I had decided that I’d breastfeed to cut down on the costs, but naturally as I researched further, I became so aware of the health risks associated with not breastfeeding for both me and my child, as well as the environmental impact of opting out of breastfeeding. To me, these simple decisions to use natural or reusable resources for my baby would not only save us a fortune, be kinder to our baby, but they would also have a substantial environmental benefit.

My digging online lead me to more and more stories about people living a Zero Waste lifestyle. Bloggers and Instagram accounts proudly showing their home made almond milk and their entire years rubbish fitting into a mason jar. I was in awe of their dedication, but disheartened that is never be able to obtain that level of environmental perfection. It seemed pointless to even try, but try I did! Just a few small changes were actually easy to implement.


Here’s a few examples of my initial changes

Cloth Sanitary Protection (CSP) is a return to what our grandmother's and great grandmother's used. These are colourful and comfortable and above all reliable. (2)

I stopped using face wipes and swapped back to good old face cloths, water and cleansing soap.

We used cloth nappies 80% of the time for our son until he was a year old.

I stopped buying unnecessary cosmetics. I had been so guilty of impulse buying the latest products and only using them a few times before they became resigned to a box or a cabinet somewhere. Now not only do I not have the product and plastic waste, I also didn’t waste money, and I don’t have box loads of stuff I’ll never use clogging up my bathroom or bedroom. 

I also started skipping unnecessary paper bags where possible. For example in a pharmacy where they pop a pack of paracetamol into a paper bag, or a single book in a bookshop, or when buying something small like a pack of socks when I know I’m going straight to the car.


  • I bought shampoo and conditioner in 4 litre bottles from the hairdresser suppliers shop for about €33 in total. I used pretty soap dispenser bottles in the shower and refilled from the big bottles as they ran out. 3 years later, I’ve just finished my last top up from these bottles and I’ve estimated that I’ve saved over €200 in hair products, and over 70 plastic bottles!

  • We used cloth baby wipes and water, which I made myself from two unused baby blankets.

  • I swapped the use of kitchen paper towels to kitchen cloths which are used for spills, sticky hands and faces, wiping counters, you name it. While we still have kitchen paper for some things, In the past 3 years, we have used approximately only around 15 rolls of paper towels, rather than a full roll almost every week.

  • I opted for a minimal wardrobe. When I was pregnant, I realised I was surviving perfectly well with a dozen maternity tops and three pairs of trousers. I loved not having to think too much about combining outfits and what was or wasn’t fashionable. I began to realise that I didn’t really care about what other people wore, so I realised probably nobody really cared about what I was wearing either. That realisation was very liberating. I now keep a very limited number of clothes – using only three drawers in a small chest of drawers, and a handful of hangers in the wardrobe. I have four pairs of shoes! My husband also keeps a small amount of clothes, and we don’t go overboard with our son’s clothes either.

  • We swapped to a 2 in 1 washing powder to cut out all the extra plastic bottles of fabric conditioner, or the use of capsules in plastic boxes.

  • I made a much better effort at bringing reusable bags to the supermarket or finding a cardboard box if I’d forgotten to bring the bags.

  • I stopped taking the special offers leaflets or catalogues home from the shops, and rejecting handouts and flyers.

  • My husband started using shaving soap with a brush instead of a foam from an aerosol can.

I felt that these changes have actually made a difference to our home and our lives.


NCCWN Donegal are always looking for women to share their stories and looking for women to write features on topics of their choice which we will profile as part of our Women’s Lives, Women’s Voices’ series.