Kerry is shining a light, through times of darkness

JOB interviews, exams, school woes, illness and relationship struggles - everybody has to go through the stresses and strains of everyday life.

And now with the looming spectre of Covid-19, which has already led to classrooms closing, employment loss, social isolation and panic in the community, we are coping with more mental pressure than ever before.

It’s a particularly worrying time for our young people, who of course have never lived through such a major global emergency - even if the older members of society have come through war and conflict.

Kerry McWilliams founded the Lightwork NI social enterprise a number of years ago to help ‘build resilience’ in the local community, with clients ranging from five to 105 years old.

She had already worked in counselling and family support and for organisations like Women’s Aid and the Simon Community - and saw how simple, science-based coping mechanisms could help people through difficult times.

With Northern Ireland already facing a mental health crisis, now the techniques used by Kerry and her team are needed more than ever, practical tools we can all use at home to calm ourselves and think clearly.

From a base at The Junction, Lightwork NI holds workshops and other outreach work all over Northern Ireland, for young people, parents, and anyone else who needs assistance, either in a group setting or one to one.

“Some people find that a one to one session is too intense and they feel too self-conscious, for other people, that works better for them." said Kerry.

“Young people quite often enjoy working in a group, they like the banter and the solidarity, but they often don’t want to do anything that would single them out or make them feel embarrassed, so we have to create a balance.”

Quoting a medical expert, she said that the country is facing a ‘tsunami’ of young people facing mental health crises, and medical and alternative practitioners are ‘standing on a beach with a little bucket, trying to stop it’.

“Young people are well educated and informed on the issue, they know that there is a problem, they know where to get help and who to talk to, but a referral and an appointment in three weeks’ time doesn’t help when you are lying awake at 4am, not able to cope with all the emotions you are feeling.” she said.

“Saying ‘I can’t swim’ won’t help when you hit the water. We need to tackle the how, not just the why.

“Parents are crying out for assistance, they can see that their children are in pain and suffering, but they feel powerless.

“Mums and dads are terrified, they can see that young people are dying and they do not understand and they feel like there is nothing that they can do to help.

“Parents want to be included and we run workshops where they can participate as a family, as well as dealing with both the parents and/or the children separately.”

Statistics show that there was a 30 per cent increase in referrals to child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) in Northern Ireland in 2018, with 60 per cent not seen in good time.

Before, that, in 2015, it was estimated that there were 45,000 young people suffering from a mental health issue at any one time.

Without the correct interventions, young people, Kerry said, then find themselves drawn to their own type of coping mechanisms - online or screen addiction, substance abuse, anti-social behaviour or other activities that put themselves or others at risk.

“Some need to get out of their heads completely and forget about it all, others look to things like cannabis to calm themselves down - when they are on drugs, young people often say that takes them away from the emotional state that they are in.

“But then comes the withdrawl or the come-down, which can make them feel even worse, it's a never-ending cycle and addiction also leads to other risky behaviours. And it nearly all stems from an anxiety or trauma.

“The Troubles might seem a long time ago, but it seems that we still do not know how to deal with our trauma in this country,”

Kerry noted that science has proven that stress and anxiety can actually be inherited and that big traumatic effects can ripple down through generations, adding: “We are grown in the soil that is our families.”

But she says that sometimes, all it takes is remembering how to breathe - with flowers and windmills!

“A lot of the time, we deal with very young children who literally do not know how to breathe properly,” she said.

“Initially, we found it very hard to explain to them how to take a proper big deep breath using their diaphragm.

“You see it every day, when a child is stressed, they start taking very short breaths, they can hardly get their words out, they hyperventilate.

“Breathing properly is very important and calming when someone is in a state of anxiety, it helps us calm down and think clearly.

“So we utilise props, we ask the children to take an artificial flower in one hand and take a big smell of it and hold that breath in, and then in the other hand, they will have a little pinwheel and they have to blow on it and exhale properly to get it moving.

“So, flowers and windmills!”

Another trick is ‘rollercoaster breathing’ where young people are asked to imagine that they are driving the finger of one hand on a track over their thumb and five fingers, and breathing in and out as the ‘car’ rises and falls.

“Rollercoaster breathing is something that can be done discreetly, under a desk or jumper.” said Kerry.

“I’ve had a big burly school rugby captain tell me that he does it every night before a match, while for others, it helps with exam stress.

“Children can have a variety of triggers, like a teacher shouting, even if they are shouting at another pupil, can be very upsetting, particularly if the child is already dealing with fighting parents at home, it can be a very calming activity.”

Sadly, Lightwork NI works with young children who are already experiencing the physical side effects of stress, including tummy upsets.

“Stress and anxiety can cause a lot of physical issues and quite often these children are being given medications for an illness, when actually the problems are coming from a different place,” Kerry added.

“Equally, when children are seen as being disruptive or badly behaved, often this is a manifestation of what they are feeling inside, but do not know how to articulate it or explain it.

“We teach children how to recognise and manage signs of anxiety and stress in their bodies and behaviours.”

For older clients, Kerry employs techniques like ‘Emotional Freedom Techniques’, known as ‘tapping’ - lightly touching a number of acupuncture pressure points around the body, and neuro-linguistic programming or NLP.

“Tapping, once learned, can be done very discreetly,” said Kerry.

“NLP could be visualising the best feeling you’ve ever had, the happiest or most content you’ve ever been, reliving that experience in your mind over and over again, and then marrying that to a physical action.

“When you have gone though neuro-linguistic programming, all you would have to do is make that physical action, and all those positive feelings come flooding back, which can be really empowering for something like a job interview or a presentation at work.” said Kerry.

With schools now off for the foreseeable future and jobs being slashed or moved to home working, she said that people will need these types of skills more than ever.

“The next period of time is not going to be easy,” she said.

“We’ll have parents who are not used to being at home full time, siblings stuck in the same house who find it difficult to get on at the best of times, children who do not get on with a step-parent, families who are worried and stressed about older relatives, grandparents not allowed to take care of children because of health concerns - there is going to be a lot of anxiety out there.

“Unfortunately some children’s only access to a hot meal will be at school, there are breakfast clubs and after-schools clubs that may no longer be accessible, for some children, school is a refuge from a less than happy home life.

“Even for families where there are none of these sorts of concerns, there will be a lot of adjustment to do, a lot of time to fill, a lot of relationships that will change and young people will need the skills to cope with that.”

And the work of Kerry and her team has not gone unnoticed.

Lightwork NI has delivered programmes to schools around Antrim, including Parkhall, Round Tower and St Comgall’s and now Queen’s University has helped secure accreditation for its’ courses.

As well as a £5000 boost, there will be support to roll these schemes out across Northern Ireland.

The Enkalon Foundation in Antrim has also provided a five-figure sum in support of Lightwork initiatives.

“We cannot thank the Enkalon Foundation enough for believing in us and the support from Queen’s has been amazing too.” said Kerry

“Everything we do is supported by science.

“Queen’s has seen the value in what we do reflected in their own results - the drop out rate in the first year of university is high because a lot of students have never been taught how to cope with independence and freedom.

“They have often gone from living a very structured and perhaps strict lifestyle, to having to make their own choices - and there is a lot of financial freedom as well.

“If they haven’t received the guidance from home or at school, the money goes on the wrong things, they go out partying, they get into a bad situation, they miss their lectures, they fail their exams and they leave - this isn't good for anyone.

“By building strong and resilient young people, we create students who are more likely to cope with this massive change in their lifestyle, therefore contributing to academic success and graduates who are more likely to go on to get good jobs and do well in the workplace because they can cope with whatever life throws at them.

“It’s a win-win situation for everyone and Queen’s has recognised the benefits of the work that we are doing, there are wider societal benefits.”

Kerry added: “We are always taught to keep our emotions in check - at school, at work, out socialising, and that is not healthy.

“Those emotions will get out there somehow, and if they are suppressed, they usually come out in a negative way.

“We help people to understand and release difficult feelings in a healthy way.”

Lightwork also uses drama, arts and crafts, music, games and stories to help people cope with how they are feeling.

“One of the things we do is help people to create a memory box,” said Kerry.

“It is known that when we are in crisis, it is really hard to think happy thoughts and recall good memories.

“So we get people to make their own boxes from scratch and we put things in them like a bottle of sand from a beach where they spent a happy time, a pressed flower from a walk they had been on, a letter from a friend which cheered them up.

“And in difficult times, that person can reach under the bed or on top of their desk and open the box and those happy memories will flood back because of these tangible reminders.”

With the closure of schools and the discouragement of gatherings of people, Kerry is unsure of what the future holds, but is keen to use social media and video conferencing facilities to help more people in need if society goes into lockdown.

“There are loads of tips and tricks to help all members of the family to deal with what is ahead of us and this is a really important time to get that message out there,” she said.

“Young people especially will be bombarded with negative news and headlines and will probably be finding all of it very overwhelming.

“This is a time to offer them guidance and reassurance that this will all pass, while there will be a lot of upset, they can get through it and out of the other side.

“Northern Ireland has gone through some tough times before.

“In years gone by, people had to endure traumatic events with little or no support apart from their families, who often bore the brunt, or a referral to a counsellor from a GP.

“There is a lot more help out there now, and techniques which can be utilised anywhere, at any time, to help people feel grounded and calm.”

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