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Portrush mum Jill had multiple suicide attempts... now she's helping people recover from mental illness

Jill Huston believes her experience, which was partly due to her concerns about revealing she was gay, helps make the charity she set up with two colleagues well placed to tackle mental health problems. Stephanie Bell reports

Here to help: Jill Huston is service operations lead at the Hummingbird Project
Here to help: Jill Huston is service operations lead at the Hummingbird Project

Just six years ago Jill Huston's self-esteem was so low that she thought she was unemployable, despite having a degree in psychology. Fast forward to today and the 48-year-old Portrush mum is one of three people behind a new project that is empowering those with mental health issues to recover.

Jill and the team at the Hummingbird Project on the Causeway coast have a fresh approach to mental health and in two short years have managed to bring dozens of people back from the brink of suicide.

Jill has struggled most of her life with mental health issues - self-harming from the age of nine and making countless attempts to take her own life - even while studying for her degree at Queen's University, Belfast.

It wasn't until her mid-20s when she finally found the courage to talk about her sexuality that Jill's life turned around and she started to heal.

She now believes that the fear of coming out as a lesbian at a time when homosexuality was still a taboo in society was a big factor in her illness.

Now that Jill is using her own experience of mental health issues to help others, she is passionate about the Hummingbird Project and, together with her team, has ambitious plans to expand its reach from the north coast across Northern Ireland.

The project was set up as a social enterprise by Jill and two colleagues who all worked for a mental health charity.

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Jill is service operations lead and works with Leigh Carey, executive director and James McAleese, service development lead, as well as a team of five dedicated volunteers.

All three have battled mental health problems, putting them in the unique position of being able to share their first-hand experience with clients.

Together they felt there was a need for a much more person-centred programme and, even though they have been going just two years, their results have been overwhelmingly positive.

Jill explains: "Three of us started chatting over coffee and discovered we all felt that we could do things differently.

"A lot of good work is being done but we saw a need to focus more on the concept of recovery and also resilience and preventable solutions.

"All three of us have experience of mental health issues and have required some kind of therapeutic intervention from the mental health service.

Making a difference: some of the team at the Hummingbird Project. From left, Kate McGonigle, service development lead James McAleese,executive director Leigh Carey, Jill Huston and Conor Warren
Making a difference: some of the team at the Hummingbird Project. From left, Kate McGonigle, service development lead James McAleese,executive director Leigh Carey, Jill Huston and Conor Warren

"We spent a year honing what it was we wanted to do and there was a lot of weekends away with bottles of wine as we tried to find what was best for us - and we came up with The Three U Model Recovery Mentoring Programme.

"Using our model and harnessing the power of our lived experiences, we have developed a powerful tool for helping people overcome mental illness.

"When I discuss some of the issues I have been through with clients they feel understood and that is very powerful for them to have someone helping them who has experienced what they are going through."

Jill has a five-year-old son, Adam. Her childhood was overshadowed by mental health issues and even into adulthood she was unemployed for many years because her self-esteem was so low.

She recalls how her illness impacted her: "My depression started in childhood. Back then child mental health was not talked about unless there had been an obvious trauma and that didn't apply to me. I had a relatively good childhood.

"However, I spent most of my teenage years self-harming and making suicide attempts and struggling emotionally - and got a diagnosis and medication when I was 16.

"Looking back, I remember being on my bike when I was nine and driving out in front of a car and getting clipped and it is only now I know that was the start of self-harm.

"My illness just got worse and at university I had multiple suicide attempts and lots of self-harm. By then I did have a psychiatrist but nothing really was working. I think I choose to study psychology at Queen's as I had a vague notion it might help me to understand myself more."

After university Jill moved to Dublin to work for a charity and experienced a huge turning point when, at the age of 24, she found the courage to tell her best friends she was gay.

She was convinced they would reject her, but their support was such a relief that with their acceptance came a new understanding for Jill of why her self-esteem was so low.

She says: "I was aware I was different from a very young age but growing up in Northern Ireland in the Eighties and into the Nineties there were very vocal public figures who were anti-gay.

"Listening to what they said, it became ingrained in me that I was bad, and I felt that because I was different, I was rotten to the core.

"That still stings me to this day and thank God we have moved on and young people now are more supported.

"My brain was frazzled and it got to the stage when I couldn't not come out. It was 1993 and I said to my best friends 'I am weird, I am crazy, you are going to hate me' but they were all hugely supportive and that shocked the life out of me because I thought I would be rejected."

To this day Jill lives with clinical depression but has learnt to manage her illness. While finally enjoying the release of talking openly about her sexuality for the first time, she started to understand why she had been ill.

However, her self-esteem was still at rock bottom and she had a 10-year period when she wasn't well enough to work.

Trying to get back into employment just a few years ago, she was convinced that no one would want to give her a job.

She recalls: "I asked the girl in the dole office if I maybe could get a job at night stacking shelves in Tesco because I believed there was no way they would let me out in front with the public.

"I didn't believe I was good at anything and yet she told me I was over-qualified for all the jobs that there were vacancies for."

Jill got involved in a 'work connect' programme and her adviser, who was also employed by the charity Action Mental Health, worked with her over a number of months to help her gain confidence and finally realise that she did have value.

Six years ago she started working as a skills coach with a mental health charity and two years ago set up the Hummingbird Project.

Life now, she says, is full and rewarding: "Training and working in mental health I realised this is where my passion is.

"It is where I am most effective in helping people by sharing my life experience to connect with others, to build trust and be able to say authentically to people 'I know what you are going through and you can recover from it'.

"I still have to pinch myself that I am doing what I am doing.

"I still cope with some negative styles of thinking left over from the worst days of my illness. However we have a culture in work where we look after each other and if anyone is having a bad day everyone will give them space, support and flexibility."

In just a year of offering its unique one-to-one and group counselling services, Hummingbird has helped 140 individuals and held 300 group sessions. The team also offers resilience training to help people with and without mental health issues identify the signs and take steps to prevent themselves becoming ill.

These sessions are held in the community and in workplaces.

The team is indebted to Amplify NI for their training and support in helping get the project off the ground.

A major five-year initiative, Amplify NI aims to support people in Northern Ireland to take action together, to create fairer communities where everyone can thrive.

This year Hummingbird has also teamed up with multinational professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers to deliver a series of outreach programmes on suicide prevention in north and west Belfast.

With close monitoring of every client, the team are bolstered by the fact that what they are doing is having an impact.

Jill adds: "More than 50% of the people referred to us are suicidal and we deal with people who are significantly unwell.

"We offer six of our recovering mentoring sessions over 12 weeks which allows them to take control of their lives again and by session four we find that any suicidal thoughts have gone.

"We aim to explore all options and really understand the issues each person faces in their lives to unlock solutions that will work for them and help them get a sense of control back into their lives.

"We have the evidence that is it working with all of our one-to-one clients, recording an improvement in clinical scores.

"On average our clients experienced a 63% improvement in symptoms of their mental health issue and almost 90% recorded that the intervention significantly improved their feelings of control and management of the presenting issue.

"In group training, we consistently record satisfaction scores of four or five out of five, with participants reporting in comments how good the workshops are.

"At the moment we are dealing with referrals in the Northern Trust but we hope to roll the service out across Northern Ireland."

You can find out more at www.thehummingbirdproject.org.uk. If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article, contact the Samaritans on 084 5790 9090, or Lifeline 080 8808 8000

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