Blog: Mental health and physical activity in Northern Ireland. Mental Health Foundation.

Most people know that engaging in physical activity is not only important for our physical health, but also for our mental wellbeing.

Much of the existing research focuses on the impact of physical activity on depression, with multiple studies finding that physical activity is associated with a reduction in depressive symptoms. The Royal College of Psychiatrists states that a moderate level of exercise can be as good as antidepressants or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

The relationship between physical activity and mental health appears to work both ways1, with increased physical activity resulting in better mental health and vice versa. Not surprisingly, then, those with severe mental health problems are less likely to engage in physical activity and are more likely to be physically unwell.

The evidence for the positive effects of exercise on a range of mental health problems is growing, with studies demonstrating that exercise can improve the lives of people with schizophrenia2.  Despite this, exercise interventions are often neglected in mental health care3 and the mortality gap for people with serious mental health problems continues to widen. This is particularly pernicious in Northern Ireland, a country in which the recent political turmoil has exacerbated the mental health crisis to catastrophic proportions.

The Mental Health Foundation, along with several partners, including Queen’s University Belfast and three Recovery Colleges (Northern Recovery College, South Eastern Recovery College and Western Recovery College), has received funding from DRILL (Disability Research on Independent Living & Learning) to conduct a one-year pilot study to address the high levels of physical ill-health and preventable deaths of people with serious mental health problems in Northern Ireland.

What the study will involve

Co-production will inform the entire study. Individuals with lived experience of psychosocial difficulties will receive accredited training from Queen’s University Belfast to become peer-researchers on this study. They will then have an instrumental role in co-producing the programme design, research methodology, analysis, research findings recommendations and promotion.

The physical exercise programme, targeted to people with a range of serious mental health problems, will be developed from a series of co-production workshops with people with lived experience, and consultations with recovery colleges, sports organisations and health professionals.

Participants will undergo tailored health checks to determine the programme’s impact on participants’ physical and mental health measures. The sustainability of the programme will be explored via interviews and consultations with partners, and recommendations and next steps will be identified.

The shocking fact that more people in Northern Ireland have died by suicide in the past 18 years than were killed during 30 years of conflict highlights the urgency of the situation. Mental health problems can no longer be ignored, and innovative, creative approaches and solutions should be explored.

This is exactly what we seek to do with our partners through this large-scale physical exercise programme designed to empower people with serious mental health problems to incorporate physical activity into their lives. Not only does this innovative study seek to develop the evidence base for physical exercise interventions in mental health, it also hopes to provide practical solutions that will improve the delivery of services in Northern Ireland.

For further information please visit (

& project page

Blog Post: DRILL through history, beyond the present for the future

Tony O’Reilly

Taking a look at the world today it seems that the equality agenda, has taken a backward step. Brexit and the quest for the leadership of American democracy has been characterised by many as a global manifestation of a backlash against progressive forces that sought to promote equality for all. We are left simply to reflect on the apathy or cacophony of angry voices as a guide in choosing moral leadership to uphold the nobility of human rights and the future of democracy. Gone in an instance is the history of struggle and endurance that must inform and shape progressive forces in our future.  It is in this history that lies our desire to look beyond the dark clouds of our history, from the politics of superficial opposition to the politics of inclusion.


Such progressive forces perhaps, through the lens of rose tinted glasses of a dreamer, were often rooted in the social conscience of the civil rights movements so prevalent it appears in the Europe and United States of the 1960s.  In the idealism of the young Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, my hero of the Russian Revolution of the 1980s and 1990s (not the one of 1917). His policies of glasnost (“openness”) and perestroika  (“restructuring”) gave so much hope for the flowering of human rights…..


When DRILL was first conceived by the four disability organisations involved and funded by the National Lottery, they didn’t imagine it would measure up to advancing the human rights of disabled people as other movements had progressed in the 1960’s. It will be a quiet revolution and one where information and knowledge alone will be mightier than any single street protest that preceded it. As for my heroes, in this wider modern and new revolution, it has to be the people who conceived this ambitious undertaking, despite the global doom and gloom, they have chosen to continue this struggle fighting with all their might for what is right; no matter the odds or the weight of history. My views, your views, our views, do matter. If DRILL says anything, it proclaims precisely that.


Two things are certain. You and me when we work in solidarity with each other:  we become an us. Together we make a difference. Alone, without the other disabled and non- disabled, we our drowned by popularism – which by definition excludes the minority, no matter how reasonable or compassionate our voice. Secondly, by the very nature of DRILL, and indeed our movement we will always challenge popularism born of ignorance, fear and despair.  The struggle for equality and human rights and the desire for knowledge and enlightenment is exactly that.  It is keeping faith in the good, in the struggle for a better tomorrow, bound neither by the past or the present, by a hard or soft Brexit or dare we say any resident in the White House.


This is an edited extract.  Tony’s full blog can be viewed here – June – Tony O’Reilly Blog


Tony O’Reilly is a member of the North West Forum of People with Disabilities and the Northern Ireland DRILL National Advisory Group.  He has been an activist in the human rights movement for over 25 years.  He is a dreamer and a doer.

Blog Post – Empowerment matters: An evaluation of the Dementia NI service

Dementia NI Antrim group 2405

People with dementia often report losing confidence following a diagnosis and can sometimes experience feeling marginalised and stigmatised in society.

Dementia NI was established in January 2015 by five individuals with dementia, to support and enable others with dementia to have their voices heard.

Since launching in 2015, members have been involved in activities including public speaking, engaging with policy makers and service providers in Northern Ireland, raising awareness and challenging stigma and assumptions about dementia.

But what exactly empowers people with dementia and how can this learning about empowerment be translated to other contexts, for different individuals and in different circumstances? These are questions that will be addressed by our exciting new research project between Queen’s University Belfast and Dementia NI, funded by the DRILL programme.

We are delighted to be partnering with Dementia NI as part of an evaluation of the organisation’s empowerment programmes. Informed by the principles of realist research this evaluation will be co-produced by people with dementia to help understand what works well about the programmes, for who and in which situations. This will include interviews, observations and questionnaires with members, volunteers and staff. The knowledge developed through the evaluation will support current and future members of Dementia NI as they continue to develop empowerment groups across Northern Ireland. It is expected that recommendations will also be applicable more generally to empowerment of people living with other disabilities.

We are excited to be involved in a project that focuses on empowering people to live well with dementia. This research project will centre on listening to and learning from the voices of people with dementia. In the words of Dementia NI members:

“We want people to come and ask us, not make assumptions about and decisions for us.” (Dementia NI)


Dr Paul Best is a lecturer in Social Work at Queen’s University Belfast and will be leading this project in collaboration with Dementia NI.

Tara Collins is the programme manager of Dementia NI.

Mabel Stevenson is a research assistant at Queen’s University Belfast on this project.

Dementia NI –

02890 68 67 68

Email: [email protected]


DRILL Roadshow Reports


The DRILL Programme, through its national partners, has now completed over 18 DRILL Roadshows across Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England.  The purpose of which was to determine how research and piloting would contribute most to achieving independent living.


The DRILL Roadshows were based on the principles of co-production involving Disabled People Organisations (DPOs) from across the impairment spectrum, disabled people, academics, policy makers and senior practitioners.


Over 640 people were directly engaged and many more indirectly through social media, with disabled people in the majority.  National Advisory Groups (NAGs) received a draft report and further engagement was undertaken to satisfy the equality and diversity values of DRILL.


The 4 Reports will now inform the basis upon which the Programme will proceed and the reframing of the DRILL Themes for research and pilot projects.



DRILL Roadshow Report – Northern Ireland

DRILL Roadshow Report – England

DRILL Roadshow Report – Scotland

DRILL Roadshow Report – Wales

Adroddiad Sioeau Teithiol & Cysylltu Cymru


Thank you to all who have participated so far with DRILL.  Please stay in touch.

March Blog – Change

Ursula Marshall

If we want change now is the time to do something about it. DRILL will provide us with the vehicle to effect this change.

On Sunday 14 December 2003 my life changed forever.  I had taken several hours and umpteen attempts to get downstairs and had no clue what was happening to me.

The previous evening I had been to two work functions – you know the sort – networking! Anyway I was feeling very tired but put it down to the flu and chest infection I had had all week.

I had been experiencing other strange manifestations that week – pins and needles, loss of balance at strange times and an overwhelming sense of weariness.  That night I finished up in The Royal Hospital in Belfast and I haven’t been up my stairs since.

What I didn’t know then but I know now is that I was about to become 1 in 5 of a constituency known as ‘The Disabled’!

I’ve also learned a few other statistics in relation to my condition. GBS affects approximately 1500 people a year in the UK.  Of these about 90% recover in 2 years. The other 10% have varying degrees of recovery including 1% who die. Apparently I was very close to the 1% but am lucky to have dodged that one. So I am the 1 in 10.

Listening to the news at the end of 2015 there was a report that the Disability Discrimination Act was 20 years old.  The clip showed demos and protests by people with disabilities prior to this legislation being enacted. This was followed up in Disability Discrimination Order in 2006. How lucky I am that I came to this world after these things happened and not before.

In the intervening years since becoming disabled I have had to adjust to doing things differently and dread to think how I would have coped had the world around me not begun to change. I have used both pieces of legislation in my new life to challenge complacency in regard to compliance.

It would seem then that the effective way to bring about change is to make a nuisance of yourself in a very public place!  But I think the ground work has been done by those pioneers of the 80’s and early 90’s and it is up to us to build on that and the best way to do it is to arm ourselves with relevant and current information and that is why DRILL is so exciting.

In 2016 DRILL is part of an environment in which the implementation of the UN Convention the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is being ‘discussed’; Northern Ireland government departments are being ‘shuffled’; an election is coming and the new councils are ‘consulting’. There cannot be a better time to provide research results that give solutions to today’s challenges to independent living.

We are being presented with a unique opportunity to fully research any and all aspects of our lives.  This data can then effectively inform policy makers and in turn bring about change which is meaningful. The Lottery has funded a 5 year programme which will involve people with disabilities at all levels. It’s about doing with and not for in regard to it’s approach.  The research will be directed and selected by people with disabilities.

It is vitally important that people with disabilities engage in this fully and I would encourage everyone to avail of this unique opportunity. DRILL will be different – it won’t be piecemeal, it will have depth because the experts will have completed it – the experts being the people who live their lives with disability and are consequently best placed to do it.

So if we want change now is the time to do something about it. DRILL will provide us with the vehicle to effect this change.

Blog post by Ursula Marshall is a member of the DRILL  Northern Ireland National Advisory Group.  She has a 25 year history in the community and voluntary sector on welfare rights, homelessness and women’s issues.  Since 2003 she has been involved in the disability rights through the Cookstown Disability Forum and with Disability Action.


Members of the Northern Ireland DRILL National Advisory Group


We are delighted to announce membership of the Northern Ireland DRILL National Advisory Group.  As of the 15 December we have 11 confirmed members. 

The current membership provide as individuals a diverse range of experience and knowledge.  Collectively they will provide a wealth of guidance and inspiration.  Being part of the National Advisory Group as an opportunity to be part of a new programme with the potential to make a real difference, in the long term, to the lives of people with disabilities.

This number will grow as we consider those who would like to sit on the National Advisory Group and those who have been recommended to us.

We will meet again on the 15 January 2016 and discuss future membership of the group and the report from the roadshows and engagement events we held in November and December 2015.


DRILL Launch Northern Ireland: Disabled people take the lead on £5 million research project

Disabled people will be at the forefront of designing projects for a new £5 million UK wide research programme to explore how disabled people can live more independent lives. The DRILL programme, which is launched in Northern Ireland on 16 September, will see disabled people working with academics and policy makers to develop research and pilot projects that will show how they, and people with long term health conditions, can be better supported to be full citizens.

The DRILL (Disability Research on Independent Living and Learning) programme is fully funded by Big Lottery Fund and will be led by, Disability Action in partnership with Inclusion Scotland, Disability Wales and Disability Rights UK,

Kevin Doherty, Chief Executive, Disability Action, said: “ultimately this is about making a real shift. Far too often disabled people are the subject of research but not participants in its development. We want academics and others to work in partnership with disabled people to build an evidence base that will contribute to making real change.”

DRILL is expecting to fund a total of 40 research proposals and pilot projects over a 5 year period. The programme which we believe to be a world first, aims to work in partnership with disabled people, academics and policy makers to build a better evidence base about approaches that enable people to live independently, which will be used to inform future policy and service provision, as well as giving greater voice to disabled people in the issues that impact them.

The criteria for funding will be decided after engagement events with people with disabilities around the UK, under the themes of peer support, autonomy, resilience and social, economic and civic participation. Disabled people and their organisations will be supported to work on their bids in partnership with academics and policy makers.

Speaking at the Launch, Philomena McCrory, Director of the Centre for Independent Living NI said:

“The Independent Living Movement is based on the firm belief that disabled people are the experts on how we achieve independent living and fulfil our individual potential. The DRILL Programme is therefore of great significance as we move our philosophy and ethos forward through the co-production of new research – disabled people taking the initiative individually and collectively in designing and promoting more effective solutions to the barriers we face in everyday life.”

Dr Bronagh Byrne of the School of Sociology, Social Policy and Social Work, Queen’s University Belfast added:

“Building a truly inclusive society needs to be underpinned by a strong evidence base with disabled people at its core. I look forward to the DRILL Programme producing key research from across Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England in partnership with disabled people, academics, service providers and policy makers – research that is committed to and guided by the articles and principles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.”

The first round of funding is expected to be launched in April 2016. For information on DRILL please visit

DRILL Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland DRILL National Advisory Group 

Alan Sheeran

Consultant (Disability and Children’s issues) – Chair of the Northern Ireland NAG

Tony O’Reilly

Activist, North West Forum of People with Disabilities – Co-chair of the Northern Ireland NAG

Dr Nicholas Acheson

Visiting Research Fellow, Trinity College Dublin.

Gavin Davidson

Senior Lecturer in Social Work, School of Sociology, Social Policy and Social Work, Queen’s University Belfast

Dr Berni Kelly

Senior Lecturer in Social Work, School of Sociology, Social Policy and Social Work, Queen’s University Belfast

Ursula Marshall

Activist, Cookstown Disability Forum

Heather Matthews

Activist, REAL Network

Majella McAteer

Business Development Manager, British Deaf Association

Professor Roy McConkey

Emeritus Professor of Developmental Disabilities, Ulster University

Michael Potter

Researcher, Northern Ireland Assembly