10 Aug 2022

'By making ourselves feel good about being from Derry, that will make a difference to well-being' - mental health expert outlines benefits to city of River Foyle transformation

off - Pods at Peace Bridge
By Garrett Hargan An expert in mental health believes the Our Future Foyle project can instil positivity in Derry by changing the way we view our bridges and the river itself. Siobhan O’Neill, a professor of mental health sciences at Ulster University has been in discussions with Our Future Foyle about ways to transform the riverfront and in turn the community’s views of ‘the Foyle’. Working alongside Project Lead, Ralf Alwani, their objective has been to change the physical appearance of the Foyle Bridge and help address negative connotations by repositioning the riverfront at the heart of the city as an area to socialise and interact with technology. Prof. O’Neill explained: “The conclusion that we reached was that we needed to change our city’s mindset and needed to create a positive and hopeful attitude in the city. “We wanted to change how we view our river and, environment in general, to improve wellbeing across the city. It also came at the same time as a lot of negative publicity around the roads not being built, little regeneration in the city, a lack of jobs – there just seemed to be a lot of doom and gloom about Derry. “We thought the only way of being able to improve the wellbeing of all the population here would be to create a new story for Derry and change the conversation that we have about our city.” Prof. O’Neill said it is important the local media is factual when reporting mental health and suicides to avoid creating the perception that it is an issue unique to Derry. “We did a study which was published this year and looked at suicide rates across Northern Ireland, it confirmed that deprivation was the main predictor of suicide, not the area in which a person lived. “Mental health is a big issue across Northern Ireland, our male rates of suicide are almost double that of England, to associate one town makes it seem as if that town is in some way different from other parts of Northern Ireland. It really isn’t, it’s about living in an urban area with deprivation and the history of the Troubles. “Suicides are preventable, even if the figures were lower it would still be a problem. “If you draw people’s attention to a message like suicide, you can alter how people feel they should react in a crisis situation. I think by altering our community mindset and making ourselves feel good about being from Derry and living in this city, that will make a difference to wellbeing.” ‘Preventative measure’ Those behind Our Future Foyle have been open about the fact Foyle Reeds will also act as a ‘suicide barrier’ but believe that it offers much more in terms of regeneration, tourism and future investment. However, she added that barriers should be on all bridges as a preventative measure. “I would argue that every bridge should have barriers and be built with safety in mind. “That would be my view as I’m interested in suicide prevention. “We’re not shying away from that but it’s much more than that, Our Future Foyle is a regeneration project that I believe is going to transform the city. “It will be so much more than that, but yes this will be an effective barrier to prevent suicide from the bridge. “We could’ve just built a big barrier if that was the sole purpose.” Other components of Our Future Foyle are Foyle Bubbles and Foyle Experience which will allow people to interact with their surroundings and innovative technology that will be embedded in the pods. Prof. O’Neill said these pods will open up areas of the city which have been under utilised. “Our river is incredibly beautiful, we were finding that people were going out for walks but weren’t gathering to socialise and meet other people. “The Our Future Foyle project is creating these lovely new shared spaces so that people can use the river and waterways. "Being beside nature is known to be helpful and good for you so it’s just an alternative place for people to go and play, socialise and exercise. “At the minute people gather in coffee shops and bars around the town and this will bring people down to the river. “It will also attract tourists and be a place for them to go, something that’s different from other cities. It will be a family friendly area, accessible to people in wheelchairs and older people – it’s just a really lovely thing.” ‘Full potential’ Those behind the project are aware that people may be critical and feel that money should be invested elsewhere, however, Prof. O’Neill said funds for this project will come from a ‘different pot’ for tourism and regeneration. And if Derry doesn’t apply for the money then it will be invested elsewhere in Northern Ireland. Prof. O’Neill said: “Everywhere in Northern Ireland definitely needs more mental health services. "It’s not “either one or the other”, our city can have both, and if we don’t get it, it will be spent on another project in a different part of Northern Ireland. “Let’s invest in our city and make it attractive for people to come to because these projects in the long-run will create jobs, opportunities and improve everyone’s well-being so I think we need to look at the long-term benefits.” She added: “You can’t just firefight at one end and wait until people come forward with mental health problems, we’ve got to look at the conditions and environment in which our families are growing up in – let’s make the city attractive to tourists and people who are going to invest. “This sort of thing is really powerful, I can imagine some time in the future bringing tech companies around and if they’re thinking about where to locate their companies then Derry might just have the edge with all the lovely things that we have. “We have our beautiful walls and we have our beautiful bridges and, they’re part of what makes Derry unique, so I think we need to open up that waterfront and capitalise on it by using it to its full potential.”

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