How a grant from Manchester’s health commissioners is bringing more diverse – and hands-on - support for mental wellbeing across the city.
The therapeutic effect of animals has long-been known – but now one specific Manchester project is using nature to nurture by helping people at crisis point or with long-term mental health issues.
Noah’s ART is just one of the 35 projects which bid for and received funding from Manchester Health and Care Commissioning (a partnership arrangement between Manchester City Council and Manchester NHS Clinical Commissioning Group) to run programmes that aim to improve the mental health and wellbeing of people living in the city.
In total, £330,000 of funding was made available, which allowed for grants of up to £10,000 to be awarded to voluntary and community and social enterprise groups that either support statutory mental health services or target those people who may find it difficult to find help.
In the case of Noah’s ART, a Dukinfield based organisation that specialises in animal assisted therapy, the team is running two projects that would otherwise not be able to go ahead. The first is aimed at helping men with long-term conditions like schizophrenia or bi-polar disease on Acacia ward at North Manchester General Hospital, managed by Greater Manchester Mental Health Foundation Trust.
A seven-week course sees Noah’s ART founder Sharon Hall take in dogs, rabbits, guineapigs, rats -and a mouse - for sessions where patients can not only handle them, but also learn how to look after them. At the end of course there is a certificate and people can then volunteer to help Sharon with other projects in the community.
“The feedback we’ve had has been quite magical,” says Sharon, 54, who also has ten years’ mental health nursing experience. “The occupational therapists have told us that some of the men we have on the course never attend any group activities – yet they have come to and really enjoyed these sessions.
“A lot of the session is non-verbal – and people can just sit and spend time with the animals enjoying a quiet bond. The two dogs are very popular – but we also find that the rats in particular provoke questions and a lot of curiosity.”
While on the course, patients learn about animal diet, nutrition, and care along with budgeting skills linked to owning a pet.
“This is the beauty of the work,” says Sharon. “The connection you get with an animal depends on you. And then that connection builds a bridge to helping start conversations with people. It’s a common bond that breaks down barriers.
“Many of the men in this ward could be there for a long time – that’s why it’s important to offer a gentle and safe environment for integrating back into society. It’s optional for people who complete the course to then come and help at our community events – but that choice is there for those who want to do so.”
The second strand of the Noah’s ART project targets women admitted to Elm and Poplar wards, also in North Manchester General hospital, where they will be facing an acute mental health crisis – perhaps around depression, bereavement or psychosis.
Here again the animals are taken to the ward, at a time when patients can often find it difficult to concentrate.
“At this point we find that patients need to be able to come in and out of sessions as much as they need, depending on how much they feel that they can manage.
“A lot of the time the animals can be a real comfort – and the simple physical connection of holding or cuddling an animal can bring profound relaxation even at a time of major mental or emotional anguish.”
There are two dogs in particular who work on the programme: Moose, a King Charles Cavalier Spaniel, a tiny dog, who was given a big animal name to match big hopes for his life; and Maggie, a playful Jack Russell, who was so small as a puppy that she was affectionately dubbed ‘maggot’.
In fact Moose, now two years old, started his therapeutic work almost from day one as Sharon got him as a puppy when her own parents died.
“Moose helped me with the grief I felt at the loss of my parents,” she explains. “In particular my Mum loved dogs - so much so that the family pets were on her bed, surrounding her when she died.”
This was one of the prompts for Sharon work at Noah’s ART, combined with her previous nursing experience where she saw results for people who could make a connection with something that motivated them.
“Our animals help to give an unspoken outlet when people feel unable to express their feelings,” says Sharon. “And the animals also get and show pleasure from the experience.
“More than that they are can be both a bond and a physical bridge that can help people through severe mental pain. When people can enjoy animals it can be that small ray of light that gives hope for enjoying other things in life too.”