Building bridges between communities in Birmingham

Our Head of Programmes, Tom O’Connor, had the opportunity to visit our Building Bridges project, supporting Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) communities in Birmingham. The project exists to reduce mental health stigma and improve access to mental health support for these groups, who have traditionally been marginalised, so that they can live healthy and fulfilling lives.


Last year I had the absolute pleasure of visiting the Unity Hubb in Ward End, Birmingham, and meeting Rashta and Tim, two of the local leaders who are working with Mental Health UK and Rethink Mental Illness to deliver our Building Bridges project.

Building Bridges is about reducing stigma and improving access to mental health support and services for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) communities in the local community. For me, it was fascinating to hear about the integrative approach Rashta, Tim and their colleagues are taking to engage with the growing Roma community in this area of Birmingham and the impact it was already having at this early stage in the project’s development.

The Unity Hubb is based out of St. Margaret’s, a beautiful old church that was refurbished in 2013 as a community centre. Over the last ten years, St. Margaret’s has been at the centre of efforts to bring Ward End’s diverse communities together, creating a space where local people can engage one another and build connections and cross-cultural understanding. As well as being somewhere people can come to access services, the Hubb also hosts a number of community programmes run by local people, mostly women, providing an opportunity for people to share their skills, learn new ones, and get to know their neighbours in the process.

This approach has been vital for Building Bridges, as Rashta describes below.

“The Roma community in Ward End is big, but there’s been little integration. Building Bridges has provided us with an opportunity to engage the community and learn from them, not only about the issues they’re facing and the support they need, but also about the skills they have to offer”.

– Rashta

For the Roma people, who like other GRT communities are often marginalised and discriminated against, it is vital to have trust. Every Wednesday, the Unity Hubb hosts a café where members of the community come together to meet. Children are kept occupied with different activities while their parents can access support with applications for settled status and other services if needed. Although staff steer away from talking explicitly about mental health due to stigma in the community, the café has become a safe space where people are starting to open up about their worries and the pressures they’re facing.

GRT communities experience higher than average rates of suicide and mental health problems and it’s clear that there is much more to do, not just with the communities themselves, but also the services they use. That’s why as part of Building Bridges, we’re also applying our learning from the project and working with other GRT-led groups to educate mental health service staff and service providers across Birmingham and the West Midlands.

In the meantime though, Rashta, Tim and their colleagues at the Unity Hubb will continue to build connections with Roma people in Ward End so that they can become better integrated and contribute to the caring, supportive “village” that is being created in this suburb of Birmingham.

At Mental Health UK, we understand how feeling part of your local community has a positive effect on mental health and emotional wellbeing. It provides a sense of belonging and social connectedness that offers extra meaning and purpose to everyday life.

First though, where the Roma and other GRT communities are concerned, we have to build trust.

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