Belfast Telegraph

It'll take a miracle for us to continue, insist owners of Compass Counselling

Counselling service overwhelmed by public demand but lacking in funding

Compass Counselling directors Mandy McDermott and Sheree Irwin
Compass Counselling directors Mandy McDermott and Sheree Irwin
Mark Bain

By Mark Bain

A west Belfast community counselling service which has been providing vital support for people suffering from mental health issues said it will take a miracle to keep its doors open.

Compass Counselling has been operating from its base on the Shankill Road, but the directors have made the difficult decision to start winding up the service and say they have been left disappointed and frustrated at the lack of financial support from authorities, especially when mental health issues and suicides in the area have been on the rise.

Director Mandy McDermott, who has been involved in the family-run service from the beginning, said the decision was "heartbreaking".

"It's tough for us," she said. "Since we made the decision that we can no longer operate under the current situation, the public outcry has been heartening for us, but sadly that's simply not enough for us to keep going.

"Those words of support from the community are sadly falling on deaf ears.

"We have had meeting after meeting with authorities and politicians over the past few years and while they all come across as being sympathetic to what we're trying to achieve, we have never received anything concrete from anyone in order to keep the service going.

"It's sad when we are losing people to suicide across the city and beyond that we're in a position where a service so many have come to rely on is not being supported.

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"It will take a miracle for us to continue."

Compass Counselling has been operating for the past four years when the organisation was set up as a family-run service.

"We have never received any core funding and until now we have relied on fundraising, donations, some paid sessional work and the generosity of volunteers.

"But we've found that more and more people are coming to us for help and running the service has turned into a seven-day-a-week job," Mandy said.

"I've been working in therapy for over 20 years and have never seen so many people in need of the service we can provide. I'm just so disappointed that unless things change dramatically over the next few days, we're not going to be there to help."

While the number of people taking their own lives hasn't risen in the past two years, Northern Ireland still has the highest suicide rate in the UK, with five people dying each week.

Figures from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (Nisra) show that 609 people took their own lives here in the first two years since Stormont collapsed in early 2017.

"Everyone knows Northern Ireland is in the midst of a mental health crisis," Mandy said. "For people in a position to do something to help secure the future of vital services to sit back on their hands for so long is deeply disappointing."

The decision proved a particularly difficult one with the family members involved having come through traumatic experiences of their own.

"Some may be aware or our family history," Mandy said. "We grew up in Glencairn and over 20 years ago our father was convicted of sex offences. That was a terribly difficult time but we came through the other side fighting to make our lives better.

"In the end, five family members trained to be therapists. Not only did that help us process our own experiences, but it put us in a place where we could start helping others."

The family were so successful in showing that resilience that then Prime Minister Tony Blair invited them to Downing Street where they were presented with an award for their achievements in overcoming adversity. "That was a real honour for us, something we're all still proud of," Mandy said.

"Since then we've been all over the country, giving talks and holding workshops on mental health issues.

"We've even been to Rome where we met with the Catholic Safeguarding Board, but we always had a desire to try to give something back to the community we grew up in. That's why three of us decided to start Compass Counselling.

"The organisation grew organically. Now we have a professional team of 12, but none of them pick up a regular salary.

"We are constantly hearing heartbreaking stories of people taking their own lives and we have been passionate about what we have been trying to do, but while the small donations have been incredibly welcome, the service is just not sustainable.

"We have gone out of our way to introduce ourselves to the people with the power to support our work.

"The service is there, it's professional and filled with people dedicated to making a difference, but without that foundation of support, services will disappear and more and more people will slip through the net. We don't want to be in a position where we're saying 'if only we were there to help'. We have been there to help, but in six weeks' time, unless things change, that's going to end."

She added: "The longer we all sit back and talk around the mental health problem, the more people are going to suffer. Words are cheap if they're not followed by action. Sadly it's the community that pays the price."

If you, or anyone close to you, is affected by any issues in this article, please contact the Samaritans free on 116123 or Lifeline on 080 8808 8000

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