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The Conversation Starter Project

The Conversation Starter Project was founded by Dr Tara Quinn-Cirillo, Psychologist in 2020 she has partnered with Shirley Blanch (Wellbeing Coordinator) is a mindfulness coach and SMART foundations certified young minds teacher, transformation meditation teacher and resilience, wellbeing, and mindfulness at work coach. We are both passionate about community emotional wellbeing and supporting people to manage adversity.

The Coronavirus Pandemic exerted a significant impact on the emotional wellbeing of many individuals due to the restrictions imposed and the social isolation as a result. Many people have experienced anxiety about connecting with others following the pandemic and levels of loneliness have increased. The project is designed to help facilitate connection with the aim of enhancing emotional wellbeing in the local community and reducing loneliness.

Dr Tara and Shirley Blanch

There is the additional consideration that any people have seen their physical health suffer because of the pandemic due to the restrictions on movement and activities within the community. There are also people with long standing emotional health problems who have had changed/limited access to services as a result pf the pandemic and may have increased anxiety about engaging in the community again. This project can be a means of engaging them in a safe and supported way. We now have links with local agencies including the Social Prescribing Teams in GP Surgeries and The Richmond Fellowship, who support people to come along and benefit from the project. The feedback we have so far is just wonderful. We take pride in seeing how people are enhancing their wellbeing as a result of the project.

We are the UK’s first Psychology led free community wellbeing project. We operate a robust structured framework including safeguarding and risk assessment. We focus on mental and physical health by incorporating outside gentle exercise with connection. We aim to combat loneliness and emotional health post pandemic and help to empower people over their own health and wellbeing through evidenced based methods led by an experienced clinician.

The project consists of 3 arms

  1. “Walk and Talk” sessions incorporating mindfulness in the local community where people can connect, talk an enjoy sunlight and fresh air. Walking and exercise are also evidenced based for enhancing mood and overall wellbeing. We are developing this service to include provision of regular times and targeting groups and topics for sections of the community. There is a huge body of evidence in respect to the positive impact of walking and talking in nature for physical and emotional wellbeing. There is also a body of evidence for social connect, compassion for others for enhancing emotional wellbeing. This structure can be less intimidating and more informal than sitting in a room, there is no pressure to contribute to conversation it is simply facilitating a safe space to do so if attendees want to in their own time. This informal structure removes much of the stigma people can feel about taking positive steps to improve their mental health and encourages them to feel invested in the project which helps with attendance growth and retention. These are not designed to be therapeutic but general conversations around wellbeing and of course any topics that people wish to discuss. Walk & talk sessions offer:
    • A flexible format.
    • People can attend independently or with more formal support worker.
    • You can join late and catch up (reduces pressure for those who may anxious)
    • Walks are Suitable for all mobility needs
    • Personalized/human element- we offer to meet people beforehand. This hales engagement and anxiety around arriving.
    • There is no set format for discussions. We talk about general wellbeing and conversational topics
  2. An online community where people can talk and connect with others (private group with set rules) This is helpful for those who may struggle with face-to-face meet ups.
  3. Specific activity sessions & Signposting to other community wellbeing initiatives to further enhance people’s connection and wellbeing.

For details of events relating to this project please see our Facebook page link below:

https://www.facebook.com/The-Conversation-Starter-Project-101485682194256/

Instagram: @theconversationstarterproject

The project outcome so far

  • Mixed gender and ages attending.
  • Diverse backgrounds attending.
  • Self reported reduced rates of anxiety and depression including SAD in the winter months.
  • Self reported reduced levels of social anxiety
  • Self reported reduced levels of loneliness
  • Increased confidence and self esteem
  • Increased ability to connect with others again
  • Increased community engagement (inside and outside of the group)

History

Social isolation and loneliness and the impacted upon many people’s mental health throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Restrictions were placed on how and when we socialise which has exacerbated loneliness and social isolation for many. The elderly are particularly vulnerable and also men, who have been shown to struggle more with reaching out and talking about wellbeing and mental health.

Humans are innately social beings. Connecting and talking have been evidenced to exert a positive impact on mental wellbeing. Many may feel that reaching out to a stranger to talk may be awkward or that they may be judged negatively by society. It is important we address these barriers and support people to feel able to connect in a safe and supported way to enhance their wellbeing.

I started The Conversation Starter project back in November 2020. This time of year can be difficult for many historically. Darker evenings, lowered light levels and the run up to the festive season can be difficult times for many. The pandemic and lockdown restrictions created extra psychological pressure on people and their wellbeing at this time. However due to the restrictions on meeting in public places, the project was not able to gather the pace it needed until now. Community safety was paramount.

As part of my community focus and ongoing Compassionate Horsham Campaign, I wanted to introduce ‘talking benches” and “walk and talk” locations locally to help mange loneliness and connect people in the hope of supporting mental health in our community as we continued to navigate the pandemic. I wanted the overall project to be called The Conversation Starter Project: Connecting People, Connecting Communities and Enhancing Wellbeing”. A recognisable project supported by those in our community including focal points, café’s, shops, community centres and local organisations to get involved in supporting either talking benches (when allowed with covid restrictions) or walk and talk points where people can meet and talk while walking together.

The ‘talking benches concept’ was started by Alison Owen-Jones in 2019. She introduced the concept of the “Happy to chat” bench which was then expanded around the world. Chat benches have appeared in Australia, Canada and the Ukraine.

In November 2020, Sir Tom Moore’s daughter Hannah made a video encouraging people to walk and talk during lockdown. We can never underestimate the positive impact of connecting with others on our emotional wellbeing.