A unique team of neurodivergent counsellors in Sunderland is offering mental health and wellbeing support to children, young people and adults in the city.

Nicola Pallas, who was diagnosed as autistic last month, is the founder of Creative Minds, and half of her team are also autistic or have ADHD or both.

Their clients range from four-year-olds to people in their 80s. And their methods range from talking therapies to play sessions, arts and crafts, massage, Reiki and crystals depending on the clients’ wishes.

Nicola, 34, says: “We work with a broad range of needs and issues but I have noticed a surge in referrals of neurodivergent people.

I often hear that autistic people tend to attract autistic people, and I think that’s what is happening in this service.

“All my own clients are neurodivergent at the moment, and a lot of them are newly-diagnosed adults. So, it’s about helping them with self-identity, understanding themselves, and dealing with past traumas living as a neurotypical person in a neurodivergent body.”

Nicola began her working life as a nursery nurse but retrained as a counsellor after she’d been in therapy herself in her early 20s and found it helpful.

She initially did a lot of counselling work in schools, so she came up with the idea of setting up workshops for children during the holidays when their normal support ground to a halt.

The workshops were a success and in 2019 Nicola decided to set up Creative Minds as a community interest company (CIC) with her sister and a few friends. That meant they could fundraise and apply for grants, allowing them to offer counselling services for free to certain groups.

The team has since grown to nine, and the company has moved from Pallion to Hendon to its current home in the Hills creative hub in the city centre.

“I set up the CIC because people weren’t getting the mental health support they need,” Nicola says. “A turning point was a 16-year-old client who had been on another waiting list for two years and had attempted suicide a number of times. I thought, ‘why is nobody doing anything?’ Many organisations are struggling.”

Autistic people in particular face challenges that can put a strain on their mental health, and there is not a lot of support available if and when they get a diagnosis.

That’s something Nicola and her team are well-placed to understand.

Speaking from personal experience, my mental health was never great growing up. I always struggled with major anxiety.

“Everyday life can be difficult – not being understood, or presenting differently from how I’m feeling which can be confusing for people. And I now recognise that I probably masked every day of my life, which led to burnout.

“So there’s that level of understanding and lived experience that a neurotypical person might not have. When you say, ‘I get it’, people tend to believe you a little bit more because they think, ‘I know she’s autistic, so of course she gets it’.”

However, her team have a variety of specialisms and deal with a huge range of clients. They are currently supporting new mums and babies, offering counselling for struggling parents, baby yoga and baby massage sessions.

They also work with children who have suffered abuse as well as victims of human trafficking.

They reject a one-size-fits-all approach to mental health support. “You come as you are and we see what comes up,” Nicola says. 

“Some people like to just come and chat, some people like to come and be arty and not speak at all. With the children, we work a lot through play depending on their sensory needs.

Doing something creative can help unlock that subconscious part of the brain so you’re able to communicate from a deeper level without realising. You can’t force people to talk if they’re not ready to or it’s not part of who they are.

Reiki – a spiritual healing technique based on energy – as well as massage, meditation and crystals, are also offered. “Having that option to experience difference things can prevent a block for some people, especially neurodivergent people. It can keep you interested and give you focus on how to help yourself,” Nicola says.

The team is not a clinical service and they don’t believe in “mending” people or making problems go away.

“We’re not fixing people, we’re helping them to understand themselves,” Nicola says. “Once you start to develop an understanding of why you behave or react in a certain way, and what’s happening in your brain and body, you’re able to do something about it.”

That’s certainly worked for Nicola. She said she used to “beat herself up” about finding telephone and Zoom calls really difficult – now she has support in place to help her do that.

No longer being ashamed of the things I struggle with and getting the right support has helped massively with my mental health.

“Getting my autism diagnosis made me feel validated. I’m just a bit more confident in who I am.”

Creative Minds can be contacted by emailing [email protected] or calling 07388513076.

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