Arts and mental health

The Dragon Cafe

Support from donors enables us to fund community well-being projects like The Dragon Café in Southwark. Set up and led by people with experience of mental health issues, it opened its doors in October 2012 and has since been providing a unique, supportive space for the local community.

What is the Dragon Café?

The Dragon Café is the first mental health café in the UK and is based at St George the Martyr Church in Southwark. It offers a uniquely vibrant, creative space for those seeking a safe and comfortable environment to socialise in where quick judgements are not the norm. As well as offering healthy and affordable food, visitors can take part in the many free creative and well-being activities the Café provides.

Last year, 2,500 people came through the doors to experience this safe, non-judgemental space.

A creative but calming space

The Dragon Café offers a whole host of creative and well-being activities including writing, tai chi, photography, dancing, art exhibitions and mindfulness classes. Visitors have also been taking the opportunity to have massages, which can help to re-establish the connection between mind and body that is often broken in times of mental illness.

The Café is open every Monday from 12 – 8:30pm, but even when it’s closed, there’s an online forum where people can connect and share their experiences.

A project led by service users

Sarah Wheeler is the director of the Dragon Café and has run the mental health focused community group Mental Fight Club since 2003. Sarah knows how mental health problems can strike anyone, at any time.

Sarah had been treated at the Maudsley Hospital after a period of psychosis, and found respite in a café nearby which she found welcoming and comforting. She felt there ought to be other similar places with a creative rather than clinical atmosphere.

It was in 2011 that her idea for the Dragon Café was born.

‘It’s about valuing the experience of mental illness. It becomes much less isolating when you talk about it and find that others can relate,’ Sarah says.

The popularity and healing-power of the project meant the team felt honour-bound to apply for funding for another year. And, thanks to donations from supporters, the Dragon Café’s doors remain open.

‘We are exceptionally fortunate to have major support from Maudsley Charity, which is truly "walking the talk" in backing an innovative, user-led creative enterprise,’ she says.

Providing safety and support

Feedback from visitors show just how much of a difference the Café has made to people, especially those experiencing mental illness and recovery.

‘The Dragon Café is a fantastic place. It gives me a chance to meet like-minded people and make new friends. Very friendly people. May it last forever!’

‘I always leave feeling better than when I arrived. I get to be around lovely and diverse people.’

‘This café tackles something which no book or tablet ever could. I was lonely and isolated before. But since coming to The Dragon Café I feel happy.’

Declan McGill is the Communications Manager at Mental Fight Club, the charity who run the Dragon Café.

‘What has been impressive is how quickly and readily often-vulnerable people engage with the activities on offer,’ he says.

Along with the funding, a team of around 65 volunteer patrons make the Dragon Café a sustainable project. They have been trained in mindful working ethos and help out with everything from kitchen work, stage management and sound recording to website support. Many of the volunteers have experienced mental health issues themselves, and being involved with the Café helps build their confidence.

‘The Dragon Café has given me the motivation to actually do something when I was in the midst of a deep depression,’ says volunteer Agnes. ‘It is a non-threatening and welcoming activity in which I do not feel like a mental health patient.’

Continuing to challenge stigma

Throughout the year, The Dragon Café will continue to provide well-being activities to all who need them, and will be getting involved with projects like the Anxiety Arts Festival.

In the long-term, the team plan to build the café into a long-lasting model of creative and social support.

‘We’d like to see the Dragon Café as a landmark for people finding their way, particularly when just coming out of hospital and feeling isolated,’ says Sarah. ‘Intrinsically as a space, it’s helping to overcome the stigma of mental health issues. That evaporates inside here. Through the Café, we have the potential to heal and give hope.’

Thanks to donations from people like you, we’re able to support community projects that give support to people going through mental illness and recovery. Please help us to keep these projects running.