Over cups of tea, bickies and cake in a beautiful old Nedlands home, three dedicated women shared with me their passion for creating supportive, safe and open places for people living with mental illness, through the Rainbow project.
Rainbow runs in five locations around Perth offering, fortnightly or monthly social gatherings, including lunch and a time of sharing.
Ruth Reid has been patron of Rainbow in WA since it began in 1998, and still offers her time each month, despite ageing into her 90s. Marian Hillam is the co-ordinator for the Claremont/Nedlands Rainbow group, which has been running for around 11 years, and Sarah Robson is a new recruit, having recently started volunteering at Claremont/Nedlands.
Ruth and Marian are members of Nedlands Uniting Church, while Sarah found Rainbow through Volunteering WA. Sarah loves cooking, and was looking for a way to be able to share her gifts with people in the community – Rainbow provided that perfect space. Rainbow now comes under the umbrella of UnitingCare West, after its formation in 2006. Volunteers take on a range of roles and all receive mental health training.
According to Ruth, the Rainbow journey all began with a phone call from Rev Joyce Wilkins, who was minister at Manning Uniting Church at the time. Joyce and Ruth, along with Audrey Frances, another Rainbow pioneer, got together to discuss how to offer friendship and support to people in congregations, and the wider community who were feeling isolated, as a result of mental health issues. Ruth said that it started as a place of friendship, which hasn’t changed.
“For the people who come, they tell us every time what it means for them, to know we’re there and are interested in them. We can’t help with medical issues, but we can certainly offer fellowship and friendship.”
Mental illness really can affect anyone – even in Perth’s leafy western suburbs. With so much taboo around talking about mental illness, Rainbow provides a space where people can talk openly about their journey with others who are going through similar challenges.
As well as offering a place to talk about concerns, Sarah said that Rainbow also creates time to talk about the joys in people’s lives.
“I think its really nice that when they’ve got something good happening they can share it. It gives them an outlet for sharing good news as well as bad news,” said Sarah.
Marion explained many of the volunteers at Rainbow have been touched by mental illness in some way themselves, whether through family or friends, or their own periods of struggle.
“Some people gloss over it. Its been very unfashionable, its been stigmatised. There are very few people who would not be close to someone who has mental health problems at some stage,” she said. “Because no one had talked about it ever, when I heard this little church in Manning had started something up, I thought, ‘the Uniting Church is actually recognising it and talking about mental illness! This is such a breakthrough!’
“I was really excited and I couldn’t wait to get involved.”
Because of taboos around mental health, many people are keen to offer help to the program, but don’t feel confident to offer support to individuals; people can be nervous about saying the wrong thing and making things worse. As a new volunteer with Rainbow, however, Sarah explained how she was nervous to begin with, but that being a friend is actually not that hard.
“I hadn’t had a lot of experience with people with mental health issues, and I was apprehensive about maybe how difficult it might be to talk to some of the people there,” she said. “I found it much easier than I was expecting. It’s just like talking to your next door neighbour over a cup of tea.”
As is so common in the Uniting Church, all three women are quietly humble about the work they do, and see it as just another way to express love and care.
“I’m sure that you’re not put on this world just to have a good time,” Ruth said. “We’re all going along the same road, and if some of us have problems it’s nice if others can help along the way.”
If you or someone you know would like urgent support, call these numbers
- Beyond Blue, phone 1300 224 636 or visit www.beyondblue.org.au
- Crisis Care, phone 9223 1111 or 1800 199 008 for country callers
- Lifeline, phone 13 11 14 or visit www.lifeline.org.au for info and online chatting
Rainbow operates under Community Connections at UnitingCare West. Rainbow groups meet at Claremont/Nedlands Baptist Church, Trinity North Uniting Church, Duncraig, Como St Augustine’s Church, Maylands St Luke’s Anglican Church and Wembley Downs Uniting Church.
For more information on these and other services, visit http://www.unitingcarewest.org.au/services/mental-health-services/communityconnections.
Want to volunteer with Rainbow? Contact UnitingCare West on 1300 663 298 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.