Noah’s A.R.T.: where the pairing of animals and therapy helps with mental health issues

How a mental health grant is bringing more diverse – and hands-on - support for mental wellbeing across the city

The therapeutic effect of animals has long been known – but now one specific Manchester project is using nature to nurture by helping people at crisis point or with long-term mental health issues. Noah’s A.R.T. is just one of the 35 projects which bid for and received funding from NHS Manchester Clinical Commissioning Group (now Manchester Health & Care Commissioning) to run programmes that aim to improve the mental health and wellbeing of people living in the city. In total, £330,000 of funding was made available, which allowed for grants of up to £10,000 to be awarded to voluntary and community and social enterprise groups that either support statutory mental health services or target those people who may find it difficult to find help.

In the case of Noah’s A.R.T., a Dukinfield-based organisation that specialises in animal assisted therapy, the team is running two projects that would otherwise not be able to go ahead. The first is aimed at helping men with long-term conditions like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder on Acacia ward at North Manchester General Hospital, managed by Greater Manchester Mental Health Foundation Trust.

A seven-week course sees Noah’s A.R.T. founder Sharon Hall take in dogs, rabbits, guinea pigs, rats - and a mouse - for sessions where patients can not only handle them, but also learn how to look after them. At the end of course there is a certificate and people can then volunteer to help Sharon with other projects in the community.

“The feedback we’ve had has been quite magical,” says Sharon. “The occupational therapists have told us that some of the men we have on the course never attend any group activities – yet they have come to and really enjoyed these sessions. A lot of the session is non-verbal – and people can just sit and spend time with the animals enjoying a quiet bond. The two dogs are very popular – but we also find that the rats in particular provoke questions and a lot of curiosity.”

While on the course, patients learn about animal diet, nutrition, and care along with budgeting skills linked to owning a pet. “This is the beauty of the work,” says Sharon. “The connection you get with an animal depends on you. And then that connection builds a bridge to helping start conversations with people. It’s a common bond that breaks down barriers. Many of the men in this ward could be there for a long time – that’s why it’s important to offer a gentle and safe environment for integrating back into society. It’s optional for people who complete the course to then come and help at our community events – but that choice is there for those who want to do so.”

The second strand of the Noah’s ART project targets women admitted to Elm and Poplar wards, also in North Manchester General Hospital, where they will be facing an acute mental health crisis – perhaps around depression, bereavement or psychosis. Here again the animals are taken to the ward, at a time when patients can often find it difficult to concentrate.

“At this point we find that patients need to be able to come in and out of sessions as much as they need, depending on how much they feel that they can manage. A lot of the time the animals can be a real comfort – and the simple physical connection of holding or cuddling an animal can bring profound relaxation even at a time of major mental or emotional anguish.”

For more information on the Manchester Health & Care Commissioning Mental Health Grants Programme, which is being managed by Macc, please contact Oliver Cranfield on 0161 834 9823.