I AM Profiles: Sharon Hall

As part of I AM’s mission to celebrate autism with the broader world, we’re happy to present the latest in a series of our ’10 questions with…’ series, featuring experienced mental health nurse and Noah’s A.R.T. founder Sharon Hall. 

1. What led you to start Noah’s A.R.T?

I worked for 10 years as a mental health nurse. I supported young people with a first episode of psychosis. I could see them get well from the illness only to become depressed by the enormity and stigma associated with the illness. They also had good and bad days, so it was hard to get back into a traditional job or volunteer work. I set up the animal therapy to reach those adults allowing them to care for the animals. This could be an hour building up to a full day but it helps them feel valued and worthwhile.

I could see them get well from the illness only to become depressed.

2. You have a background in working in mental health, could you tell us more about this and how that informed your decision to start Noah’s A.R.T?

I started with a degree in psychology at Edinburgh University and then got sidetracked for 15 years into computer programming and business analysis. I took voluntary redundancy and worked for two years as a support worker in a learning disability community home. I then retrained as a mental health nurse. I was a forensic staff nurse in the high dependency unit at Pennine Care NHS Trust before taking a job as a community nurse working in early intervention in psychosis. It was in this role I was most struck by the need for community projects to support people in recovery. I switched to research nursing for about two years before deciding to set up Noah’s ART.

3. There are many therapies for mental health, could you explain how animal-assisted therapy works and helps mental health?

I like to look at Noah’s ART as ABC and ME. Animals are very ACCEPTING – they don’t care what you look like just treat them right and they will respond. BELONGING – all our volunteers love animals, and it is a safe place to feel part of something bigger. Most of our staff & volunteers and clients have experienced mental health issues and are open and helpful toward others with issues. CONTROL – we offer a choice of activities and animals allowing people to feel listened to and offered control of how they engage with us. And finally, MEANINGFUL EXPERIENCE helps people to value themselves and to know they are making a difference no matter how small an amount of time they spend with us. Research also indicates a major role of oxytocin in helping people feel more calm, more sociable, and more connected. Animal-assisted therapy is about relationships, and this helps us to feel connected and needed.

4. Can you get access to animal-assisted therapy on the NHS?

Currently, the NHS argues for evidence-based therapies citing the gold standard of Random Control Trials. It is very difficult to hide from an assessor that you have been treated with animal assistance. It is also hard to identify does and frequency because you are talking about a relationship with an animal. While one person may have a great relationship with one dog the chemistry may not be right for another person. There are many qualitative studies, and we have many case studies accumulated over the years. We know it works but sadly we haven’t been able to convince the NHS. We do visit a CAMHS unit frequently so slowly it is being recognised.

5. Could you give us some of the many positive examples of where animal-assisted therapy has had a positive impact on a person’s mental health?

One patient that we visited in an acute mental health ward who had spent many periods in hospital with a recovery-relapse pattern. She noted that after the animals visited the ward, she felt happiness for the first time in a long time which gave her hope for change. Her family knew straight away something had changed and the ward staff noted she had started to wear clothes with colour instead of black. She visited our café after being discharged and soon asked to help volunteer. From here she helped support 1:1 sessions with people in recovery from mental health issues and even helped with visits to school and care homes. She relapsed due to stress at home, but her recovery period was much shorter as she was keen to get back to volunteering.

We have a young girl with selective mutism who would communicate by writing on a whiteboard. She joined us for a 6-week course. By week 3 she was talking without the whiteboard. Her support worker was astonished at her progress.

By week 3 she was talking without the whiteboard.

6. How do you see Noah’s A.R.T developing in the next 5 years?

We are expanding services for young people by offering an alternative provision. People who attend the 1:1 session can progress into working with small groups to build up confidence and work toward qualifications.

But we are also developing our art programs, forest therapy walks and animal welfare training courses for teenagers through to adults.

7. There is an age-old showbiz adage- never work with children or animals. Could you give us some funny animal moments that you have seen at Noah’s A.R.T?

We worked with children with ADHD/Autism – we had two mice that these children loved and developed stories about. Sadly, Minnie passed away and we weren’t sure how to tell the children – we could say they had retired etc. We agreed to be honest. They created the most beautiful coffin and headstone from clay. We had one boy play harmonica as we took her out to be buried. They spoke about how much joy she had brought. It must have been funny watching the procession but at the time I was filled with so much emotion for their compassion for this tiny creature.

8. There is an age-old showbiz adage- never work with children or animals. Could you give us some funny animal moments that you have seen at Noah’s A.R.T?

Lockdown has caused so much distress across the population, but sadly have seen a huge increase of young people struggling with social anxiety and low mood.

Sadly have seen a huge increase of young people struggling with social anxiety and low mood.

9. What animals do you have at Noah’s A.R.T and what animals are on your wish list?

We have several dogs, rabbits, guinea pigs, rats, mice, bearded dragons, geckos, and a tortoise called Herman. We also have stick insects.

If we ever have space, we would love some larger animals such as horses, alpacas or goats

10. 3 people who have inspired you?

Julie Milsom from Hereford Community Farm kept me from giving up in the early days.

My husband believed in me enough to allow over 70 animals to be housed in our home.

My children and my staff went along with me and my crazy ideas.

To find out more about Noah’s Art, please visit their website .

If you or someone you know is interested in taking part in I AM Profiles, please drop us an email at enquiries@i-am-autism.org.uk

To find out about how I AM can offer support contact us at admin@i-am autism.org.uk or give us a call on 0161 866 8483
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