Blog by Mark Robinson – Touchstone Business Development Officer

As a Business Development Officer, I spend a lot of time writing about the services that Touchstone deliver.  I usually get my information from our website, quarterly reports and from phone conversations with service managers.  We are doing quite a bit of work around Crisis Cafes / Safe Spaces at the moment, so I thought it would be really useful to spend some time shadowing in one of our cafes, to get some firsthand experience of what it’s like to work there so that I can add some emotion to our tender returns, as well as the facts and figures.

The Well-Bean Cafes, also known as Safe Spaces, provide out-of-hours Mental Health service for those in mental health crisis.  In Leeds they are located in Lincoln Green, Wortley and Beeston and provide a welcoming experience looked over by trained staff.

Wendy Bartlett, our Wortley Well-Bean Crisis Café Team Leader kindly agreed to have me along to the Thursday night café.  I must admit, I was more than a bit nervous when I made the request.  I have my own social anxieties at the best of times but once I got there, Wendy’s experience and confidence made me feel more at ease.  She has worked at the Café since it opened three years ago (along with a number of other roles at Touchstone).  We are soon joined by Joe and Lauren, two of the Support Workers, with Mark working from home to take phone calls.

First thing is to sit down and make sure everybody is feeling well.  Looking after the wellbeing of others can be a traumatic experience and Wendy is careful to make sure that the others are doing ok. They are all upbeat and ready to get started, but first Wendy shares an experience she had leaving the Café the previous week.

At 6 o’clock referrals start to come in. Under normal circumstances the Café can cater for a 1-3 ratio of visitors to staff, however due to Covid restrictions and added safety procedures things have changed. The café is working within a hybrid model and can cater for two one-one supports in person within the cafe, four places are available in the social area and another three to six supports are available over phone or zoom. In person one-to-one support and social time is prioritised.

The referrals are taken with care, patience and discretion, and without judgement.  Joe and Lauren clearly know the visitors, which seems to make the conversations easier. This evening 13 visitors have made a referral with four requesting social time, one requesting a one-to-one support face-to-face in the cafe and 8 requesting remote phone or zoom support.

Once the phone stops ringing, a schedule is drawn-up and the visitors are allocated a Support Worker.  The visitors are then called back to receive their time slots re social and phone support details. I’m struck by the professionalism of the team.  Visitors are called when they expect it, one-to-ones are ready on time and the social space is ready to go as visitors arrive.  I’m told that this is really important to help prevent those in crisis becoming more anxious.

I’m not allowed to witness the one-to-one supports.  These are confidential discussions, undertaken in a highly professional manner, with trust at the absolute heart.  Instead I help get the room prepared for the social activities.  While we wait, Wendy gives me some idea of the level of crisis they work with and some of the risks involved. She is careful not to divulge individual personal details but gives me enough information to understand how important the cafe is to people and why the safety procedures are so important. Some have paid for taxis from the other end of the city for this two-hour social on a cold Thursday night, giving me an appreciation about how much the café means to them.

The social time consists of just being together and playing games in a safe and accepting environment.  Tonight, Joe brings out Family Fortunes, which seems to be a hit. As we get going, my own anxieties fade as the Joe and Wendy banter double-act gets into full swing.  The clients seem to love the joking around and I realise I’m not very good at Family Fortunes anyway.

As the games progress, you can see that the visitors who arrived looking stressed and anxious now look relaxed and are enjoying themselves.  Whatever troubles they have in the rest of their lives can be put on hold, while they are in the safe space of the café.  What becomes obvious is the importance of knowing and trusting the Support Workers.  Wendy, Joe and Lauren obviously genuinely care and are non-judgemental and the clients know this.

The visitors are all engaging and seem happy, to my untrained eye, but I remember that, if the café were not available, many would be attending A&E as an alternative and I can’t see how that would be good for anybody.

Two hours goes really quickly and the visitors arrange for their buses and taxis.  They leave individually and are discretely checked to make sure they are in a good state of mind for their journey.

Wendy and Lauren return to more one-to-ones and I get to spend some time chatting with Joe.  He enjoys his work and when asked for what could be improved. We talk about the lack of places to go for those that need social time in a safe space but don’t have quite the level of need that requires the Crisis Café model.

Once the one-to-ones are finished, we take time to decompress, to discuss any issues that have arisen over the evening and, again, so Wendy can be sure that the team are mentally.

The night was a genuinely enlightening experience and I am really grateful to the team for putting up with me.  There is so many little things that I could not have learnt in any other ways, that will help planning for future cafes.  Key take-aways include:

  • Having robust procedures to ensure staff and clients have a safe experience but also ensuring ongoing learning.
  • Having a building that really works as a Safe Space, where those wanting social time and those wanting discreet one-to-ones have their own space.
  • Having dedicated, caring and thoughtful staff that take the time to know their clients and make them feel at ease.