Helping young people with their mental well-being through therapy and outdoor activities, Cup-O-T is a not-for-profit group operating out of a transit van in and around Wymondham. This month we hear from Catherine Gray, the woman who set the wheels of the van in motion and keeps it running with her energy, enthusiasm, and love of the outdoors.
What is Cup-O-T and how did it come about?
I set up Cup-O-T in 2017 after working in NHS mental health services with young people and being frustrated about them not getting the service or being on long wait lists. I talked to families and young people who told me it’s hard to get to Norwich or towns for appointments, so they wanted something more mobile that came to them. And they didn’t want to be told they were too unwell for a service or not well enough for another service. We wanted to provide therapy for young people falling through the gaps and we put together our Cup-O-T: Wellness and Therapy Services van, which young people helped design. It’s like a therapy room on wheels that we can take anywhere we want within South Norfolk, Breckland, Broadland and West Norfolk. It was going really well but then the pandemic hit and the van was too small for us to socially distance, so we used it as a base in outdoor spaces - local parks and nature reserves - to meet young people for therapy. As we’re a mental health service we could continue to work during the pandemic. Families said that’s what they wanted more of, so we began looking for our own woodland space. We work with a lot of young people who have experienced trauma, abuse, or attachment difficulties, so using public spaces was okay but if you come back the next week and the den you’ve built has been destroyed that’s quite difficult to manage in therapy, so having a space of our own was really important. Since October 2022 we’ve rented a woodland just outside of Wymondham in Silfield.
The name, Cup-O-T, came from me being an occupational therapist and being a northerner - when you’re feeling a bit rubbish just grab a cup of tea, sit down and it’s that moment to just pause and think right, what’s next?
Where does therapy take place and who do you work with?
We’ve got the therapy van with seating area, kitchen and an activity area and we can go to schools, people’s homes or where they’re comfortable doing therapy. Then we have the woodland where we do group therapy as well.
We work with seven to 25-year-olds, and families or carers as well. We run a mixture of therapy sessions: occupational therapy, EMDR, trauma therapy and peer support. We have individual or group therapy sessions. We have a Minecraft based group called Level Up Outdoors where we replicate the game and play it in the woods – building things, finding rocks, lighting fires - so young people can develop communication, planning and processing skills, and we can assess them through playing outside. The groups are aimed at young people who are struggling socially or with anxiety or school. There are about six in a group which is a nice nurturing group for them. A session for individuals is an hour to an hour and a half and the group sessions are two hours long.
How are you financed?
We’re a non-profit organisation and all our therapy services are free at the point of receiving them. We have funding and get lots of grants from various sources including the National Lottery, UK Youth, Norfolk Community Foundation and previously some funding from the local ICB (Integrated Care Board). We also sell training and supervision for other therapists. Any profit we generate goes to providing free therapy for young people and families.
What’s your background and who else is on the team?
My background is mainly working with young people in complex trauma and psychosis services. I’m an Occupational Therapist; I trained at the UEA for my masters and my first degree was in psychology. I’ve worked in mental health for the last 15 years and in the NHS for 10 years. I have my own lived experience of receiving mental health services as a teenager, so it comes from what didn’t work for me, what I’ve observed as a clinician within services, and talking to families about how to do things in a different way.
I left the NHS in 2021 to run the organisation full-time. There are 10 of us in the team now, two full-time and the rest part-time or voluntary. We’ve expanded quite rapidly and are making ourselves sustainable so we can reach as many young people as possible. From April last year to March this year we worked with 396 young people. We have different people on the team who do different types of therapy to suit the person.
How has young people’s mental health been affected by the pandemic?
We saw a big increase in the number of young people struggling coming out of lockdown. They had been away from school and friends and going back into that environment where everything had changed, wearing masks and social distancing was challenging. School years are when you learn social norms and how to navigate relationships, and we found young people were having difficulty managing those normal teenage experiences and it was escalating into anxiety and not being able to go back to the school environment. So there’s been a big increase in school avoidance and exam stress for mental health reasons. We’re going to see the fallout from that for quite a few years.
Can you tell us about the People’s Project Award you recently won?
It was a long process – we applied last year and there were three different rounds to get through before being selected as finalists. We had media training with ITV in January and had to keep quiet until May, whilst gathering support without saying what for. It’s a joint award by ITV and the National Lottery across the UK, with five organisations in each area being selected, all very supportive of each other, and various amounts of funding awarded. We won £70,000, which is phenomenal!
We applied for our Cup-O-T Campfire Community in our woodland space where we run therapy sessions. The site is very rustic - the woodland needs managing and we wanted to provide a space where we can run sessions all year round. We have a little tent shelter at the moment but our aim with the funds is to build a moveable wooden structure for workshops, a cooking preparation area, and the rest will go towards funding therapy sessions and groups so we have a full programme for the next year.
What are the benefits of being outdoors and what skills can young people learn?
Indoor therapy in small rooms doesn’t suit everyone, so outdoors provides another element to therapy. It’s unpredictable in some ways because of the weather and the flora and fauna, but it connects young people with the environment and improves their restorative attention so they can focus better. It also gives them pride in their environment, and that can go on to benefit the community. Even when it’s wet and muddy weather, they still come and we huddle together with hot chocolate! The more extreme weather seems to bring people together.
Some of the skills the young people learn are how to safely light fires, about knife and tool safety and responsibility, and making things with them. I’m a big forager and we’ve got a library of books in the woods so they can learn to identify birds, plants and their uses, and the folklore around them.
What are your future plans for Cup-O-T?
We’d like to have a regular programme of therapy sessions at the woodland, develop the training we offer families and other therapists, and reach more young people in the area. We’ve grown a lot in the last year and a half, and we want to make sure we’re sustainable as an organisation in the long term. So it’s about consistency and reaching as many young people as we can and showing the impact we have. Long term, the idea would be that Cup-O-T vans are all over the country, from Cumbria to Cornwall, and replicate this model of working. But that’s a long, 20-year plan; for now it’s about getting it right in Norfolk.
How can people find out more?
We’re quite active on social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and a bit of TikTok) so people can see what we’re up to and we have a website with information about programmes we are currently running. There’s also a resource list on our website (Cup-O-T.co.uk) of organisations and apps offering support services. We work closely alongside other charities and youth groups as well.
How has the local community reacted?
Wymondham has been really supportive with the People’s Project but also the development of Cup-O-T throughout the last five years, which is great as we want to be connected to the community. The local Co-ops have been fantastic in their support. We now have a volunteer coordinator and are open for new volunteers to join in. The young people we work with are involved in every decision we make and we want to develop this further over the next year.