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Fighting the Dragon

October 05 2016
Participants at the Dragon Cafe can get involved in activities or just watch © Dragon Cafe Participants at the Dragon Cafe can get involved in activities or just watch © Dragon Cafe
Ian Kalman experiences the supportive atmosphere at London’s Dragon Cafe first hand, and mental health nurse Christina Clarke explains why projects like this are so vital.

It’s a Monday afternoon at the Dragon Café and I am watching a group of people doing T’ai Chi. Meanwhile in the space, some people are offering massage. In the main café area, others are here for a cup of tea and a chat. It’s calm, welcoming and open to all. And this, says Declan McGill, communications manager for the project, is what the Dragon Café is all about.

The vision for the Café came from Sarah Wheeler, who had experienced mental health issues and wanted to create a safe and welcoming space where people could come together, get informal support and take part in creative activities if and when that felt right. The founder of grassroots charity the Mental Fight Club, Sarah, who had suffered from psychosis, knew the importance of having a place to go that gave structure to your life and allow you to surround yourself with people who understood what it felt like to be struggling.

Sadly Sarah passed away a couple of months back, but the Dragon Café, which was launched two years ago lives on.

The Cafe is situated in the Crypt of St George’s, the Martyr Church in Borough High Street, London, and is made up of several spaces where you can find a whole range of activities. For now at least it runs only on a Monday – the idea is that it gives you a good start to your week. I spoke to one man at the café, who told me that’s exactly what it did for him. Though he didn’t take part in the activities, just coming along made him feel better. And that message is reinforced by the organisers, who are there at the entrance to greet you. Unlike many other organisations where you might be asked a thousand question, all they ask is for your name and basic contact details, you are then handed a membership card and a programme. And that’s it.

You can come along to watch, play chess, have lunch or take part in art, dance or singing sessions or aimed at getting you feeling fighting fit in body and mind. In the evening there’s evening an open mic session and for those who want to talk, an opportunity to share stories of recovery. There is never any pressure to join in: you choose what works for you.

So if you’ve got nothing better going on this Monday, and you’re in London, I’d encourage you to go. It is a magical place.

A mental health point of view

Over the past few years there has been an increased understanding of the positive impact that the arts can have on mental wellbeing. Research has found that engaging in the arts – be it dancing, writing, painting or music – can help to increase a person’s level of motivation, increase self-confidence and self-esteem, and improve concentration, something that can also be affected when we’re worried or anxious.

As a mental health nurse I will always try to encourage people I work with to engage in new and creative groups. People potentially discover skills, interests and talents that they wouldn’t have known they already possessed; art can also help us discover more about ourselves.

From my experience and from speaking to people who engage in the arts when going through difficult times, I have discovered that it can help self-expression. While you might not be able to explain how you feel in words, it might be possible in art, poetry or even dance.

I’ve seen it first-hand in the groups I’ve run. I have watched people acutely unwell, with very poor concentration being able to calmly focus on an enjoyable and therapeutic task. And what’s great about it, is that a lot of these opportunities are free or cost very little.

An incredible example of an environment that promotes the arts towards a person’s wellbeing is The Dragon Café in London. As Ian Kalman found out when he visited, it’s a place where people can try something new and creative within in a community that is supportive.Not only can projects such as these focus on engaging people into local communities’ it can also help to promote greater social inclusion and the more support we have the healthier and happier we are.

Time to change is also running blog spots for anyone who wants to write and in a way help other people who may be experiencing similar things.

You don’t have to be an artist to paint or a writer to write. We all possess creativity and with experience we grow and may find that it helps us to relax, enjoy and get pleasure out of using a skill that we never embraced before.

And if there isn’t anything in your area why not try setting up your own space, where you could invite others to join? It could be the start of your own fight with the dragon.

Similar projects

Blackfriars Settlement: This London project runs a range of arts and crafts activities to support mental wellbeing.

CoolTan Arts: This London organisation promotes mental wellbeing through creativity.

Scottish Mental Health and Arts Festival: A Scotland-wide festival to counter stigma.

Projectability: Glasgow-based visual arts project with gallery space

Art Link: This Edinburgh organisation runs Arts Access, helping support visits to arts venues.

And read up on the arts and mental health:

Mind: Making sense of art therapies; Time to Change