Outside the church hall it’s a grey, wet and wintry Melbourne morning.
But inside, the atmosphere is warm and inviting, as well rugged-up diners tuck into steaming plates of pasta bake and vegetables.
Good Grub, the free Tuesday lunch put on by Boroondara Community Outreach (BCO) at the Habitat Uniting Church in Kew, is winding up.
Suanne is a regular at Good Grub and other BCO activities.
She first suffered depression at age 16 and a few years later was diagnosed with mental health disorders.
“It’s been a really long horrible battle with some moments of absolute wellness,” Suanne said.
She said BCO events were good for “just rocking up and being yourself”, even if that sometimes meant bursting into tears.
However, Suanne said that BCO minister Rev Natalie Dixon-Monu invariably injected a sense of fun into proceedings.
“You just want to be around her, she’s just the most positive person,” Suanne said.
Suanne also thought Natalie’s dog Gus, who wandered around the hall in a proprietary manner, was great pet therapy.
Natalie said informality and participation were defining characteristics of BCO.
“In our model of care we very much have a sense that all of us are part of a community, this is a community space in which all of us contribute and belong,” she said.
“We don’t call people clients, we call them community members.
“People are asked to contribute by looking after the space and their own space.”
Terri, another Good Grub attendee, backed this up.
“Building community with people who are on the margin of society is the essence of what it’s about,” she said.
“When I turned up here I discovered a community to belong to, not an organisation that provides a service and they are two really different things. That’s what makes this place unique.”
Terri contributes her artistic knowledge and skills to help run the BCO ceramics workshops.
“Some of the participants here are what you call a participant volunteer,” she said.
“What this is trying to do is break down the barriers between volunteers and participants. It is not a clear line of delineation.
“We have a choir, All Directions, and if you don’t know any of the people, you wouldn’t know who are the volunteers and who are the participants.”
Natalie said that the government funding of health care had moved away from community models to more individualised service delivery.
This is a trend which the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) would exacerbate as it continues to be rolled out nationally.
“Even pre-NDIS there was a shift in how people are cared for,” Natalie said.
“So since 2014, all the community spaces that people used to go to were pretty much defunded. There’s been this real push for the idea that those spaces are not good spaces and it all has to be goal-orientated.”
While Natalie thought there were some positives in that approach, she believes the pendulum has swung too far and “the baby had been thrown out with the bath water”.
“It’s been a complete denial of recognising that people aren’t siloed individuals who just set goals and go off and achieve them, let alone when you are mentally ill; we all need community connection,” she said.
“The people who have got chronic mental illnesses and are disabled by them need places to belong and be sustained, in amongst achieving goals.
“In all of the research, resilience is about having community. Resilience is about having other significant people in your life that can support you in the ups and downs.”
A recently completed major report into the Yarra Yarra Presbytery Mental Health Ministry – Creating Welcoming Communities – also affirms the value of community based care programs.
“Having a place where you can share your stories with others who have similar experiences and who understand what you are talking about is extremely important to creating a sense of personal well-being and community,” the report says.
Paul Dunn, from consultancy TR Concepts was one of the co-authors of the report, which assessed the two Yarra Yarra ‘open door’ communities of BCO and the Hope Springs group based in Heidelberg Heights, along with other areas of the presbytery’s mental health ministry.
“The openness of those communities is really important,” Paul said.
“Although it’s targeting people with mental health issues anyone who fronts up gets access. Because they are funded outside the formal service system it gives them a flexibility to work in a way where they don’t have to have assessment criteria for people to come in and use the service.
“That informality is really attractive for people with mental health issues, who find the formal, more bureaucratic administrative overload of some of the traditional mental health services something they are not that keen on, meaning they are less likely to use services.”
Natalie agreed that having to meet program criteria was potentially alienating to people with mental health issues.
“They come to this place because they feel they are valued and loved and accepted without all that criteria stuff,” she said.
“Because we are not government-funded there is flexibility in the way that we can respond to people that you can’t have when you are micromanaged under public funding, where you have to tick boxes and meet strict criteria.
“We have accountabilities but they are not criteria accountabilities.”
The Creating Welcoming Communities report says that churches are well-positioned to provide a broad sense of acceptance and community.
“The ministries provide informal mainstream settings which mobilise volunteers and a range of other supports to enable people to feel this sense of belonging and to be a part of the life in their local community as valued citizens,” it says.
Natalie said that church offered a space for those who couldn’t find help elsewhere.
“These mental health ministries really function in spaces where a lot of care isn’t offered or people are complex and don’t want to engage with the system,” she said.
“We are actually able to hold and care for people who are fractured and vulnerable.”
Paul Dunn said that not having a prescriptive approach to mental health also allows people to explore new possibilities.
“People are seen as a label in a formal mental health system,” he said.
“What those church communities have done with their informality and friendship has really opened up a whole range of ways for people to be and behave in those settings that transform the way that they are perceived.
“It gives them a capacity to re-story their lives. You can potentially go in and be who you want to be.”
The report makes a strong case for Yarra Yarra’s mental health ministries as an expression of faith.
“The Mental Health Ministries are cherished as an embodied expression of Christian mission by participants, volunteers, co-ordinators, members of the congregations and other stakeholders,” it says.
“The ministries are imbued with inspiration and commitment which provides a unique motivating force and focus.”
Natalie said that BCO members came from a variety of faith backgrounds, including none, because what they found in the community was “unconditional acceptance”.
However, the Christian message is still communicated.
“People know I am a minister and they know everything I do comes out of that framework,” she said.
Natalie said that open door communities did have expressions of church suitable for those attending.
“The people I care for can be very unwell,” she said.
“So a traditional church context for them is not going to work because they can’t focus through a 20-minute sermon.
“Often they feel embarrassed about going outside for a cigarette or embarrassed that their clothes aren’t good enough. You also add in drug addictions, so they are not going to go near that kind of space.
“That’s why here in Kew and with Hope Springs we created a worship space, because people wanted to go to church but they just didn’t feel they could go to the traditional spaces.”
At the Good Grub lunch Terri affirmed this.
“From my perspective I feel that this is my church, this is my church community,” she said.
“It isn’t about going to a service on a Sunday but it’s actually about creating community and engaging with the margins of society.
“That to me is the essence of the Gospels and that’s what I believe church should be, and that’s what this provides.”
The Creating Welcoming Communities report considered the sustainability of Yarra Yarra’s and congregation’s mental health ministries.
A major concern was the burden placed on the few paid workers such as Natalie, who said she was doing a lot of crisis case management where people were falling between the gaps of the publicly funded programs.
“The problem is I am doing everything. It’s insane. I do the job of three or four people,” she said.
“Mental health has always been a poor cousin in the health system. The reality is a lot of the people that I care for, even if they do get the NDIS, it doesn’t cover everything.”
The report also highlighted concerns over the sustainability of congregational programs that rely on church funding and volunteers, when both those things were likely to keep diminishing.
Hilary Salmon, a member of Manningham Uniting Church, was leading the team of volunteers busy at work in the Good Grub kitchen.
She said the meal largely consisted of a donation from a local fruit and vegetable shop but she also often bought items the day before.
“We’re mindful of food that suits the people attending and the type of food they like,” she said.
“We serve at 11am because many of the clients haven’t had breakfast and that carries them through until the next day for some of them.”
Hilary said she had a background in hospitality and had been volunteering in the Good Grub kitchen for 10 years.
“We have a wonderful team who come regularly,” she said.
“They just enjoy coming and giving and the camaradie of a volunteer group that’s very supportive.
“We get to know the clients and they’re generally very happy with the food we serve, so that’s lovely.”
The Yarra Yarra report recommended that the mental health programs should look to partner with other community groups and funded agencies, such as those run by Uniting Vic.Tas.
This is something BCO already does with support from the local council and a partnership with Trinity Grammar School that sees uniformed students regularly attend community events.
However, Natalie said she thought the church still had a lot of capacity to support mission ministries such as hers.
“There’s enough money, resources around,” she said.
“It’s just that we may sometimes have them tied up in the traditional Sunday services with a property that’s barely used and not bringing in income.”
The Creating Welcoming Communities report also recommends building a network to share the mental health resources and expertise of congregations.
Synod disability inclusion advocate Rev Andy Calder has prepared a survey to discover what congregations are doing and what they need to support individuals and families with mental health issues.
“The gospel imperative is that we need to support people in our midst or in our local community,” Mr Calder said.
“Sure, there may be challenges but if we can swing the pendulum so we have a mindset that’s embracing rather than exclusionary, then I think we can have communities that are richer as a result.”
The survey invites church councils and individuals to respond and also asks participants to “bring it to the attention of anyone you think would appreciate the opportunity to be involved”.
People are invited to complete the survey by 20 July this year. You can find it at this link: www.surveymonkey.com/r/ucavictas-mental-health.