Michelle Bradley, Chief Executive Officer
Back in September 2012, I found myself walking round the streets of Belfast City Centre in the rain with my four-month-old daughter in her pram, desperately searching for something. Having struggled with severe postnatal anxiety and depression, I was searching for place where I could go and be with people who understood how I felt, where I could let the mask of ‘I'm fine’ slip without fear, and where I could find support for my mental health. No matter how hard I searched, this place did not exist – for me, or for anyone struggling with their mental health either in pregnancy or after the birth of their child. I was in a very lonely place, and I wondered if there were any other people feeling like me.
So, to do something, anything, to send a signal of support, I started The Parent Rooms as informal peer support group online where parents from across Northern Ireland could share experiences, seek advice, and get hope from others that they could improve their mental health and move into healthier, more fulfilling lives. Within two days we had 47 parents join the private Facebook group and this grew rapidly over the next few months.
As the group progressed, I began to notice that the most helpful tools and information were those being shared by parents themselves. Using their experiences, they were able to support others by signposting to services, offering guidance, and sharing resources. A few parents from the support group got together with the idea of pooling all these resources and creating a service that parents could access that embodied the spirit of our online group but that could reach a wider audience.
Fast forward five years and our informal online support had helped over 700 parents. Demand was growing, so I knew it was time to move to the next level, to make The Parent Rooms official and to start plans to enhance and expand what we did. The Parent Rooms was incorporated as a charity in 2019 with the ambition to develop and grow a safe, accessible, and regional peer support network across Northern Ireland for all parents experiencing mental health difficulties.
Our first board of trustees consisted of seven parents with lived experience who were passionate about using their experiences for good and creating a service that all parents from across Northern Ireland could access. This service would be built on our shared intention that no parent should be left to struggle alone.
We trained eight peer support workers in our accredited OCN Level 3 Peer Support Worker training that specialises in perinatal and parental mental health. In June 2020, in the middle of the first lockdown, we started our first official online peer support groups. Our plan was to grow slowly however, it rapidly became clear we needed to rethink the timetable, as the demand for our services dramatically increased. More and more people were struggling, and our team knew we had to respond.
“I just wanted to say thank you for everything you've done to help me so far. I've been blown away by all the support and honestly don’t know what I would have done without finding you”
Between July 2020 and June 2021, we trained 32 new peer support volunteers. We piloted a range of wellbeing programs such as art therapy, journaling and meditation, resilience-building, personal development, and sensory and massage programs for parents and babies. We also partnered with Relate NI to deliver counselling services to our parents. This meant we were able to fast-track parents to talk therapies, often within 14 days of referral, thereby reducing the time they spent in distress, and allowing them to begin their recovery process, supported by our peer support services and wrap around care.
Over the past year alone, we have supported over 500 parents (nearly as many as we did in our first five years) and we are currently receiving around 30 referrals per month for our services. These referrals come from parents themselves, as well health professionals, and other Council for Voluntary Service organisations.
“When my health visitor recommended The Parent Rooms, I never thought it would help me. BUT…how wrong I was! You are amazing at helping me feel less anxious and for helping me to realise that what I feel is normal. I don't feel so lonely anymore.”
In October 2021, we will open our first Wellbeing Hub for parents. I am really excited as this is, finally, the place I was searching for all those years ago. The Wellbeing Hub will be the place where parents can meet for social connection, and access to a range of programs and activities aimed at improving mental health and wellbeing and fostering stronger family relationships.
“I just wanted to say thank you so much for organising my counselling. It really did help and I'm feeling a lot better than I was before. At times I felt there was nowhere to turn to, so I really appreciate everything you did.”
As pressures continue to mount for parents, and mental health becomes an increasing priority, we are so grateful to Ajaz and his team for joining our circle of support and helping us to support more parents. The ripple effect of this will be felt down the generations as more parents have access to timely and appropriate support, allowing them to take control over their recovery and live healthier, happier lives.