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Counselling service: ‘Offering a holistic approach to healthcare makes sense’

By Rachel Carter

05 May 2021

Anita Gribbin, pharmacist and owner of Anita Gribbin Pharmacy in Toomebridge, County Antrim, talks to Saša Janković about setting up a counselling and mental health support service for her community.

Service type:  SOLAS community counselling, mental health and bereavement support service.

Name of pharmacy: Anita Gribbin Pharmacy, Toomebridge.

Name of pharmacist: Anita Gribbin.

Why did you start offering this service?

I started offering this service nine years ago. When I started my pharmacy here there was no doctors surgery in the area (there is one now), so people quickly came to recognise me as the main local healthcare contact.

I gradually introduced more services such as minor ailments, then opened a wellness clinic, and over the years have added in others including microsuction, podiatry, physiotherapy, nutrition reports, vitamin D and cholesterol testing. We also have a range of PGDs for strep B tests, and UTI test-and-treat.

I believe that a person’s nutrition and physical health in turn relate to their mental health, and my holistic outlook led me to establish SOLAS – a community support service which provides child and adult counselling services, mental health education awareness programmes for children and bereavement counselling services – in conjunction with a patient who had lost several relatives to suicide.

With our position as a real hub in our community, I know our customers as people not just patients, and through that I hear about their family members and their social needs. We are based in a low-income area with a high suicide rate, and many people don’t have access to a GP, or cannot wait for a counselling referral on the NHS, and certainly can’t afford to pay for private mental health care. That’s where the idea for SOLAS as community hub for counselling came from.

How much did it cost to set up the service?

There was no specific initial outlay, but as a charity SOLAS is totally dependent on donations and so the pharmacy is instrumental in organising fundraising activities in the community to sustain the service.

In a nutshell, what does the service involve?

Ninety percent of referrals come through our pharmacy, but we also get regular referrals from other pharmacies, district nurses and local GPs.

People are seen within a week, or 48 hours if it is urgent, and counsellors will at least speak to people within 24 hours of a referral so they feel they are being heard and attended to. Our loose criteria for referral is that people must live within five miles of Toomebridge, but it’s in reality it’s hard to enforce criteria when someone is in need.

Our fully qualified counsellors offer six complimentary sessions offering various forms of therapy and we also offer counselling for children and teenagers as well. Some of the sessions take place in my premises, but the service is now so diverse and busy that we refer people to the counsellors’ own clinics as well. The charity has also expanded into doing Fresh Little Minds courses in primary schools, which SOLAS has funded.

Are there any opportunities to sell OTC or prescription products during or after the consultation?

Not applicable.

How have patients responded to the service?

SOLAS is based on the concept of the ‘river of life’, and we hope to get to people before they reach what we call the ‘waterfall’ stage. It’s not always possible to reverse the process, but we want to give everyone the best possible chance of getting help, so it’s good that people can be seen so quickly. We’ve referred a lot of children, especially over the past year, and they notice a difference after the first treatment. Adults tell us it has changed their lives – some were suicidal – and they like knowing they can go back if they need to.

Roughly how often each month do you carry out the service?

Over the years, and particularly over the last months since lockdown began, demand has increased and we are referring 23 people a week.

How much do you charge for the service?

Nothing, although some people can afford to pay, which protects our budget.

Roughly how much a month do you make from offering the service?


Would you recommend offering this service to other contractors?

Absolutely. Pharmacy is going to be the real hub for healthcare in the coming years, and this will be more so post-Covid, so offering a holistic approach to healthcare and joining up your services with others’ makes sense. Our customers know they can come to us for mental as well as physical health concerns, and services such as this have a key role to play in normalising mental health in our communities.

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