Merriwa mental health support group cooks up hope for men

Kevin Newton. Pictures: UnitingCare West
Kevin Newton. Pictures: UnitingCare West

INITIALLY reluctant to join a mental health support group two years ago, Kevin ‘Big Kev’ Newton has become one of its valued volunteers.

When invited to join a men’s group set up by the mental health support team at UnitingCare West’s Outer North Hub in Merriwa, Mr Newton’s first reaction was “no way, I don’t do groups”.

Two years on, he looks forward to going to the monthly ‘Men of Hope’ meetings and has received recognition for his volunteer work, teaching fellow participants how to cook.

The group started in 2016 because there were few groups in Perth’s outer northern suburbs designed to bring people together and connect them to community.

The team, headed by community connection officer Gerhard Rousseau, established a men’s group and invited participants to be part of a co-design process to shape how it would work, their shared goals and vision.

Mr Newton reluctantly agreed to take part after his case worker suggested it would be a good idea to help him with issues around social isolation and to support his long-term recovery goals.

“Men of Hope has totally changed my life,” he said.

“I wasn’t interested one little bit, but my case manager said ‘you have to give it a go’, so I reluctantly went along to a barbecue at Quinns Rock Beach and was stunned.

“I was welcomed and for the first time in years, I was treated as an equal.

“From that day on I’ve only missed the group if I’m in hospital.

“I love it, it’s very social. If you want to talk about your problems, you talk about your problems, if you don’t want to, you don’t have to – it’s up to you.

“At one of the meetings, Gerhard asked was there was something else we’d like to do, and having a hospitality background, I suggested cooking.

“I said ‘look, we’re all on pensions, we’re all on low incomes, so how about we do cooking to a budget and what to buy cheap, so we can prepare good food, rather than just eating takeaways?’.”

Kevin Newton runs a cooking group through Men of Hope.

Mr Newton now runs the cooking group fortnightly, preparing the menu, method sheets and talking about health and safety, food types and general food-orientated education.

“I’ve worked in the hospitality industry all my life, it’s my trade, but I can’t go back into mainstream work because of my disabilities, not only with mobility, but with mental health issues,” he said.

“I really enjoy the fact that this cooking group has allowed me to pass on my skills, knowledge and passion for food to such a great bunch of guys and all the team at the Merriwa office.

“I’m actually hoping that we’ve reached the stage where the men can do a Certificate III in hospitality, so they can get work anywhere in catering.

“It’s up to them whether they want to do it, I’m not pushing anybody, and we’ll do it online – I’m just there to guide them.”

Their work had made a significant impact on the group, teaching men important life skills and improving their self-confidence.

“Most importantly, it’s created an opportunity for the men to simply come together and share a meal, have a yarn and enjoy each other’s company in a safe, welcoming space,” Mr Rousseau said.

Men of Hope members with a food donation.

Mental Health Week runs from October 6-12 and UnitingCare West’s Men of Hope group held a barbecue on the Mullaloo Beach foreshore on October 9 to celebrate.

Visit www.unitingcarewest.org.au for more information.