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Project set up to tackle conflict trauma marks its coming of age

Counselling group still listening 18 years on

By Kieran Hughes

In 1991 a Passionist priest was tasked with developing a project that would respond to the needs of young people in Ardoyne who had been brought up in the midst of sectarian conflict.As a result of Fr John Friel’s investigations New Life Counselling was set up in November 1993 and last Saturday celebrated its 18th birthday.

Since its inception New Life has become an important part of the fabric of North Belfast and has provided help to over 18,000 clients, young and old.

At a special event at Stormont yesterday (Wednesday) over 100 people, including people who have benefited from the support provided by New Life, gathered to mark the milestone and to get their hands on a new book specially produced for the birthday.

The high esteem in which New Life is held in Ardoyne, and across North Belfast is demonstrated by the huge increase in numbers using the service since it began.

Less than 100 people passed through the doors of their Etna Drive base in its first year. In 2010 over 5,000 people accessed the support they provide from their current premises on Ardoyne Road.

Karen Collins-Neill, New Life’s Chief Executive since 2008, says the service they provide is just as important to the community as it was in 1993 and although the circumstances leading to mental health problems may have changed over the years the help is still needed.

“The service was set up in 1993 in direct response to sectarian issues and the traumas that people were experiencing around the Troubles,” she said.

“Now, increasingly, there are economic problems and the stress and pressure that puts on people; difficulties in dealing with loss of jobs and unemployment and the impact that has on individual self-esteem.

“It is really important for the organisation to encourage and support people through that. These things don’t need to be disasterous for them, they can work through them and go on to have fulfilled lives.”

Karen said the 18th birthday is a significant milestone for a number of reasons.

“It’s an unusual birthday to celebrate for an organisation but the reason why we chose to celebrate 18 years was because we support so many children and young people and 18 is a significant birthday for them – it’s when you become and adult.”

The group provided support to many children during the Holy Cross dispute in 2001 who are now becoming adults.

“New Life helped a lot of people through Holy Cross and this is a significant year for them personally,” she said.

The new book, New Life Counselling – 18 Years on and We’re Still Listening, gathers some of the highlights of their history including personal stories from people who have accessed the services.

“The book reflects what the organisation has achieved over those years. There is a bit of history and development of organisation but more significantly stories and artwork from some of our clients because not everything we do is talking – there is a lot of creative therapy like drama and art.”

After nearly two decades of providing help for people from North Belfast, Karen says low self-esteem remains a big issues for many of their clients and can often lead to thoughts of people taking their own lives.

“There is a big range of issues that people come to us about, you couldn’t pin it down to one particular thing. But the root cause for our clients are issues of confidence and self-esteem, however that has happened. Self-esteem gets to such a low ebb they can become suicidal.”

But one positive she has noticed is that people are much more willing to talk about their mental health and it is no longer the taboo it may have been in the early nineties.

“In ‘93 it would have been typical that counselling and the need for counselling wasn’t something that people really talked about or they had different ways of dealing with problems, perhaps just burying their head in the sand.

“Now it has become much more acceptable for people to talk. Everybody needs to talk and people are much more open to referring themselves for counselling support or getting their GP to refer them to counseling support. The presentation of counselling in schools has really helped that as well.”

After going from strength to strength in the last 18 years Karen says they are looking forward to continuing to service the community for the next 18.

“I think the community use the service really well here and through the growth of the organisation the services we provide to the community in Ardoyne has remained, it is very much here for the local community first and foremost and others secondary.

“We would like to thank everyone who has supported New Life Counselling and everyone who has used our services over the past 18 years.”

New Life Counselling – 18 Years on and We’re Still Listening is available now from their offices on 25 Ardoyne Road. Although the book is free there is a suggested minimum donation of £8.


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