NCCWN-Donegal Women’s Network invites you to join us in celebrating St Brigid’s Day and women’s stories. On Saturday, 30th January and 6th February, 11am-2pm, we are hosting two creative drama workshops via Zoom.
These will be fun, energetic, creative and participatory workshops and will be facilitated by Sinead O’Donnell-Carey, a theatre maker, visual artist and drama facilitator.
If you would like to sign up for these creative workshops please fill in the online form here https://forms.gle/M16L6o3UsnDiqLii6 and Donegal Women’s Network will be in contact with you to confirm your place.
*If you have a disability which you think may impact your participation, please just let us know in advance to allow the facilitator to support any participation needs.
Undoubtedly the Covid-19 Pandemic has impacted and changed the way people in Ireland have been living their lives since March 2020. Data and prior research highlight that men and women are impacted by pandemics differently and that they can amplify existing inequalities. Organisations such as the United Nations have identified women as being one of the most vulnerable groups that are being hit hardest by the pandemic. While it has been suggested that the coronavirus pandemic could wipe out 25 years of increasing gender equality.
“Women are doing significantly more domestic chores and family care, because of the impact of the pandemic. Everything we worked for, that has taken 25 years, could be lost in a year,” says UN Women Deputy Executive Director Anita Bhatia.
Employment and education opportunities could be lost, and women may suffer from poorer mental and physical health. The care burden poses a “real risk of reverting to 1950s gender stereotypes”, Ms Bhatia stated 
As a grassroots women’s organisation NCCWN Donegal Women’s Network recognised early that women in Donegal will face unique experiences, challenges and impacts during the pandemic because of their gender. We believe it is important women in Donegal have their lived experiences through the Covid-19 pandemic documented, recognised and acknowledged. And that women’s experiences and voices are acknowledged within any local and national post Covid-19 recovery strategy and that decision-making bodies recognise the particular experiences of women’s lives in society and tailor any recovery budgets, policies, plans and programmes accordingly.
To support this, we carried out a county survey to capture information that would allow us to understand the impact of the pandemic on women’s lives in Donegal.
The survey findings provide a snapshot into the lived experiences of women during the March-June first wave restriction period in Donegal. It is evident from the data gathered that the Covid-19 pandemic has created additional stresses for women in the County and added pressure to existing gender inequalities and gender stereotypes.
832 women took part in the survey, and talked about a number of issues and challenges they have faced between the March-June 2020, pandemic period. Which included dealing with additional household workload, increased caring responsibilities; dealing with post-traumatic stress with Covid-19 restrictions re-triggering past traumatic experiences, going through pregnancy during the pandemic, dealing with ongoing health issues while trying to stay safe through the pandemic.
Some of the most common themes raised by women with children which directly impacted their mental health related to childcare and work. Many of these women talked about the additional workload and the challenge of balancing working from home and childcare, expectations.
While women living with a partner highlighted that even with a partner or husband in the house, it still fell on them to be responsible for childcare. Home-schooling was a particular issue raised by women, many stated that they had experienced an assumption by their partner that it would be them who would look after home-schooling. Which was a cause of frustration for women.
Many women particularly young women, women living in their own and lone parent mothers highlighted experiencing feelings of anxiety, isolation and loneliness. With constant worrying and isolation leading to sleep issues. Being away from friends and family also contributed to this. For others stress and anxiety was being brought on by worrying about the uncertainty of the future, finances and how they were going to pay bills if no work continued because of Covid-19.
Isolation and loneliness were particular areas of mental health that was experienced by women with 60.4% of women reporting that they have experienced feelings of isolation and 57% reported feelings of loneliness since Covid-19. These levels were particularly high for young women, lone parent mothers, single women and women living alone.
Additional stresses were also brought about from a feeling of expectation that with more free time now you should be doing stuff and being active at home all the time when in reality you’re just trying to cope with getting through the day. While women who were front-line workers also expressed that their mental health was being impacted by a lack of support from their employers in relation to new workloads, personal safety and proper communication during the months between March and June 2020.
Survey results showed that, 61.1% of women living in Donegal feel that their mental health has been impacted by Covid-19. This percentage increased to 78% for women within the 18-25 age group and 70% for women between 26-40 years of age. While women living in the Buncrana Electoral Area had the highest percentage at 68% and 68.6% of women with a civil status of living with a partner had the highest percentage for any civil status category.
And while the survey also highlights that women in Donegal have come to learn, develop and adapt to the new way of living, a question that must be asked is at what cost to their long-term mental health? Is this adaptation and change sustainable in the long term or even fair? And is there significant capacity within mental health support services locally to meet future demand?
From a gender lens analysis perspective, some of the challenges and additional stresses experienced by women during the Covid-19 pandemic can be attributed to issues of gender inequality. However, when women in the survey were asked if they thought Covid-19 had highlighted gender inequality gaps in Ireland, with the given options of; Yes, No and Didn’t know, 23.8% of women said YES, 23.9% said NO and 52.3% said they didn’t know. These statistics would indicate that there needs to be a better understanding about gender inequality and its impact on women’s lives.
Women in the 26-40 years’ category reported the highest level in Increased physical household workload for any age group; while women Living with partner reported the highest level in the civil status category with married women coming a close second; within the household category, lone parent mothers and women in living alone other reported the highest experienced increase in physical household workload.
The findings highlighted that the majority of childcare responsibilities and housework is falling onto women, that within households there is an assumption it will be the woman who is solely responsible for this area of work. While there may be situations where this is agreed upon, the vast majority of the experiences expressed by women would indicate that there is often no agreement within relationships but rather an assumption. Such assumptions are likely built by continued held social gender stereotypes, that a woman’s role is to look after the children and family home. Such stereotypes are detrimental to achieving gender equality and the healthy sustainable development of our society.
Women in the 18-25 years’ category (54%) reported the highest level in supporting a family/community member cocooning due to the pandemic, for any age group; while women Living with partner (53%) reported the highest level in the civil status category; within the household category, women in living alone (49%) and women living with a partner and child/children (49.7%) reported the highest level in supporting a family/community member cocooning
Fundamentally as we all learn to live with around Covid-19 and health measures we also need to ensure that we are adopting measures and a way of living that supports the growth of gender equality and does not reinforce gender inequality structures.
You can download a full copy of the Impact Survey Report below.
Finola Brennan, NCCWN- Donegal Women’s Network project Co-ordinator speaks with Greg Hughes on Highland Radio about of the isolation, anxiety and stress many pregnant women in Donegal have experienced since Covid-19 and highlighting;
“The urgent need to have a more national women centred, human and compassionate response in the delivery of the Maternity Services, while living with Covid 19”.
As part of this call, we are also asking members of the public to let Government representatives know that you are not happy with the current measures or treatment of pregnant people and you want restrictions in maternity services to ease.
To make it as easy as possible for you to contact your local TD we have drafted a letter you can use to express your concerns and support every pregnant person across the country. You can find who your local TD is and how they can be contacted at: https://www.whoismytd.com/.
If you are part of a women’s group and would like to draft your own letter, please feel free to contact your nearest NCCWN project for support. You can find where all of our projects are located here. Or, if you would like your nearest project to send the letter on your behalf please contact us and let us know. Your personal details will only be used for this campaign unless you indicate that you want us to retain your details.
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.
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.
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 Conferencein 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?
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 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.