A STIGMA-BREAKING project has saved the lives of women and girls whose battle with mental health deepened amid the pandemic.

When the headlines first circulated that the UK could face a national lockdown, projects like Saliha Sadiq's began preparing for the worst case scenario in the event of its closure.

Saliha gathered her girls into two separate rooms and held a series of empowering presentations on understanding mental health and wellbeing. For many, the Millan Centre had already been their "only hope" during their darkest times and fears grew that it could only get worse.

The Centre is a safe space for girls and women in the Manningham and Heaton, where they can access educational, social and health related activities.

As March came around, many shared anxieties about coronavirus.

"During the Spring time I was aware there was a lot of issues anyway on what communities were going through," said trustee Saliha, a qualified social worker, counsellor and mental health practitioner.

Saliha and the team provide a mix of education and therapy, ranging from building self-confidence to talks with police officers on topics such as bullying, grooming and how to stay safe.

She said: "These women, the centre’s their only hope. They live in isolation, some had mental health issues. Some had physical health problems. The young girls were coming on Saturday’s and all that stopped. You can imagine they’re feeling low anyway and had that little hope they were going to the centre, now that closed for them.

"A few, financially, they were struggling.

"I realised that these women are suffering in silence, in isolation and will be quite low in mood.

"It was like a war."

After hearing first-hand from the women about their personal struggles, often made worse by additional challenges of the pandemic, Saliha and the Millan Centre's Elizabeth Hellmich and team joined up.

The duo arranged daily phone calls with each of the women, counselling them in Urdu or Punjabi to open up a new way to talk about their emotions.

"Language has always been a barrier," Saliha explained.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus:

"I did a lot of counselling in Urdu and Punjabi. The information they were getting about coronavirus, it was like 'My son told me this'. They didn't know the impact it could have, that it can kill. When I was counselling them I kept explaining about the Government guidelines."

It focused on helping them achieve their basic needs such as eating a healthy meal or going outside once a day. When Easter and Eid came around, the centre organised doorstep deliveries of chocolate boxes.

Following its success, the project has now secured almost £40,000 worth of funding from the Home Office, the National Lottery Fund and many others.

Saliha explained: "The funding bodies saw there's a need. Now we've secured funding we can employ people and fund them.

"Every evening we managed to set up a meal and we made sure they had a healthy meal. They realised that somebody did care. It was just something basic that we did.

"I liased with other voluntary organisations, the community we live in in Bradford, what I realised it’s that so many lovely people really want to help and are doing some voluntary work.

"Some young girls were feeling very low in mood, anxiety became quite severe, they were unable to cope. I said, 'What can you do to empower yourself?'

"So many girls come. We have to use two rooms now.

"They just love it."