NEW Life Counselling has been offering voluntary counselling services in the heart of Ardoyne for over 25 years.
The organisation was founded by Passionist Order, who aimed to support the emotional wellbeing of people in an area that was deeply impacted by the Troubles.
The charity’s current CEO, Norma Patterson, has been at the helm for just 11 months, but has had a professional relationship with the organisation that stretches almost back to its foundation.
Having first joined New Life as a volunteer over 20 years ago, Norma fondly remembers the tireless efforts of the Passionists in establishing the charity – and she has watched it flourish since then.
“It was run by a nun called sister Kathleen Savage from the Passionists,” she says. “They would have given us the building and set up the services in the early days. As the years went on they became less and less involved, but they were still on our board of directors for a number of years.
“As time went on we became more secular and we didn’t have that relationship with the Church anymore. But we’re still very grateful for them for setting it up and for identifying the huge need for counselling and support in this area, I suppose because Ardoyne was hit so hard by the conflict.
“The Passionists worked tirelessly, and I remember sister Kathleen constantly bringing funders into a room and saying ‘You have got to fund this.’ Because there was very little funding in the early days she worked extremely hard to get us established, funded and working.
“We have grown considerably, and we now deliver about 12,000 to 13,000 sessions a year to about 2,500 people. As well as operating from this site, we also work in a range of local schools and community venues. If someone wants to be seen or needs help somewhere else we can do that too.”
Norma continued: “Our clinical practice is excellent. We have just been awarded BACP [British Association for Counselling and Psycho-therapy) accreditation for our services. Most counsellors are individually accredited by the BACP, but very few organisations carry the accreditation. We are one of only six in Northern Ireland to be accredited this year.”
With a degree in psychology and a professional background in both therapy and conflict resolution, Norma said that New Life felt like a place where she could make a difference.
In the past, she has worked at New Life as a sessional counsellor and her experience in play therapy has allowed her to help children and adults alike. New Life is one of the few organisations in the north that offers child and family therapy – services that Norma insists are vital for North Belfast.
“I think in this area you are working with generations of people who have had things really difficult,” she said.
“Personal safety was at risk throughout the Troubles and the area has grown up with generations and generations of high unemployment. Poverty, conflict and trauma have a huge impact, not just psychologically, but on a cellular level it impacts people physically.
“Poverty also has a huge impact on children’s education and a number of different things, so we’re working with multiple issues for a lot of families and they are trying really hard to overcome those things. It has a massive impact on people’s self-esteem, so it’s almost a vicious cycle.”
She continued: “There is a lot of research that has come out recently into adverse experience in childhood and the impact that those have on physical health, mental health, and educational achievement. The aim is to try to tackle things early. I think that’s why we believe that child therapy is so important, because you’ve got to be working with children from an early age to begin to address their issues early on.
“If you don’t catch certain things in childhood, sometimes you’re working with very difficult teenage years because it’s harder to intervene. Sometimes those teenagers will come back as adults and they will feel like they are ready to tackle the issue at that stage.
“At any stage in life it’s encouraging to know that anything can be repaired. Our brains are wonderful organs and in many ways they have a great plasticity so you can address those issues, you just have to be motivated and have the right motivator to identify what that change might look like.
“Not everybody needs counselling, sometimes a friend or a colleague or anyone you can connect with can transform things for you. Talking to anybody helps you and can help you, but counselling gives a framework and a focus for those who need it.
“If you can catch people before they hit the crisis it’s much better. When you’re in a crisis your ability to think clearly, to support yourself or to act lessens, so it’s much harder to activate the changes you need. If you can get into counselling when you’re not in crisis then you’ll be able to change things more quickly, but counselling can really help. It helps you to clear your mind enough to realise what needs to happen next to take you out of crisis.”
While New Life has come on leaps and bounds since it began, offering thousands of yearly counselling sessions, Norma admits that mental health charities, including New Life, need more support to effectively help those in need of support.
“I think pre-Troubles we didn’t have nearly enough mental health services,” she said.
“People were just in lockdown mode, they were just surviving. Since the peace process there has been a lot more services established. I think mental health services are still desperately underfunded in Northern Ireland given what we have come through.
“For our service we have a six-month waiting list and sometimes it can go up to a year. If you need a counsellor it’s way too long to wait, but we don’t have the funding to deliver any more sessions than we currently do.
“I think there needs to be more accessible services. People get fed up sitting on a waiting list and a lot can happen in that space of time.”
She concluded: “If you do need someone to talk to it’s important that you come forward. Young people, especially can access our services quite quickly so we would really encourage them to come forward.”
If you think you might benefit from talking to New Life, call 90 391630.