We live in a society where in some ways people are more disconnected than they’ve ever been. Families live further apart. We work longer hours and spend less time with the people that matter to us. More people live alone and in small, enclosed spaces that are inappropriate for their needs. In old age it’s especially a problem. In fact, according to the Campaign to End Loneliness, 11 per cent of older people have contact with family, friends and neighbours less than once a month.
All the while mental health problems are increasing and new research this week to mark Mental Health Awareness Week shows two thirds of us will suffer from a mental health problem at some point.
But what does this have to do with a café you might ask.
If you’re feeling isolated and you walk into a café, you’re instantly around other people. You go from the confines of your own head to being in the presence of others, picking up on snippets of conversation, getting a little window into other people’s lives. You might meet a friend in a café and have a good old-fashioned catch-up. You might feel inspired by something you see on a noticeboard. It might just make you happy to sit and drink a really good cup of coffee.
But we want the Merstham Community Café (or whatever we come to call it!) to be more than your average café. Because it will centre on reducing food waste, offering healthy meals to those who might not otherwise be able to afford them and promoting nutrition there will be a sense it is working for the good of the community.
Unemployment is a key contributor to poor mental health and the café will offer training opportunities and a viable route into catering jobs as well as the possibility of jobs at the café further down the line. The café will be run primarily by volunteers and volunteering has a huge impact on mental wellbeing. Helping others, making new connections, sharing a sense of purpose can transform the way you feel.
By offering healthy food and promoting good nutrition at the café we hope to help people find a better physical and mental balance. By teaching families the skills to cook healthy meals at home with affordable ingredients, perhaps we can encourage more people in our community to eat together. We can help to teach children how diet affects their physical and mental health from an early age. We can offer people access to a range of activities that will enable them to meet others and learn new skills – cookery classes for starters.
If the increasing disconnection of communities is a key contributor to poor mental health, then perhaps projects like ours can offer the antidote. In our research for the Merstham Community Café we’ve discovered lots of similar projects that have already brought communities together and supported the most isolated groups.
Those of us who are working on the café project know that Merstham needs this. We’ve seen the number of people accessing food banks rising, the negative impact on people’s mental health; we’ve spoken to people who need somewhere to go so they don’t have to be on their own.
Now we just need to make it happen!