D&S column: a sanctuary where it's OK not to be OK

One of the most interesting aspects of my job is the sheer variety of issues I get involved with.

Take last Friday. It started on the four-mile long stretch of Tees estuary coastline which was the home of the Redcar steelworks and is now a jaw-droppingly huge if strangely beautiful scene of industrial dereliction.

I was there in my capacity as Chief Secretary to the Treasury to announce the release of a further £71m of Government money to assist with the site’s purchase and conversion into a business zone hosting clean energy, manufacturing and tech companies creating thousands of jobs.

Then just a couple of hours later, after a busy surgery, I was sitting round a farmhouse-style kitchen table in a former shop unit in Northallerton talking about nurturing well-being.

While they were completely different they were also in some respects connected. Mental health and well-being is as important as economic health or financial security and, of course, they can be and often are connected.

The former flooring showroom in Northallerton Garthway Arcade is now home to The Living Rooms project, a collaboration by the five main churches in the town, to provide a community hub where those feeling the pressures of modern life, in whatever form they take, can find sanctuary.

It’s an open house, a safe space where all are valued and where help and advice on a whole range of issues, from debt to depression, is available for those who need it.

People drift in and out, having a cuppa, joining in the conversation round the table, taking part in activities - arts, crafts, games or puzzles - or just sitting quietly.

In the time I spent there, the sense of family and friendship around that table created by the volunteers and visitors was quite remarkable.

As is the way the project came together. Steve Cowie, chairman of the charity trustees which run The Living Rooms and who is also pastor at the New Life Baptist Church, told me how funds contributed by the town’s churches were supplemented by grants from Hambleton District Council, North Yorkshire County Council, the North Yorks Police and Crime Commissioner and the Jack Brunton Trust to meet the set-up costs.

Many individuals and organisations also contributed time, services and furniture and equipment. If some of the easy chairs look familiar, they will be as they came from the recently-refurbished Northallerton branch of Costa!

Steve and the team of 40 trained volunteers, have access to trained mental health support and should clients be in need of more formal support they can be referred to the local NHS mental health team.

It’s a great example of how addressing issues of well-being in a such a relaxed, informal, setting can make a huge contribution to preventing mental ill health. It very much fits with the vision for mental health services set out in the NHS Long Term Plan.

In our particular part of the world loneliness and social exclusion are significant issues which are often the root cause of illness. The Living Rooms help tackle that problem at source and will make a real difference to people.

The Living Rooms are open 10am-1pm on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. While it is a church-run project everyone, of any faith or none, is welcome.