Mental Health Takes The Stage | Feature

In the UK, 1 in 6 people alone are affected by a mental health problem, according to the Mental Health Foundation (2016).  Taking on mental health is no small feat, but The Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival (SMHAF) is aiming to change the way we talk about these experiences.

With rates of mental health issues on the rise, it’s a topic on the forefront of many people’s minds. However, persisting stigma and the often heavy nature of discussion means it’s commonly pushed aside.

The Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival is taking a different approach. Initiated to open up conversation and break down harmful stigmas surrounding mental health, what began as a weekend of films in 2007 is now a two-week festival across Scotland, attended by around 25 000 visitors each year. Running for two weeks from 10 to 29 October, this experimental festival is trying to show an alternative side of mental health.

According to the festival’s Arts Lead, Andrew Eaton-Lewis, the event takes a local-focused approach to engage a wider audience. “It’s important it’s not top-down, but grassroots… it’s a community festival at heart.”

“Theatre, and music, can be very powerful,” says Eaton-Lewis. “There’s a therapeutic effect, a sense of finding kindred spirits.” Over 300 events spread out across Scotland, thumb_IMG_0476_1024there is an emphasis on making the festival accessible to as many people as possible. “We have a record for bringing in audiences who don’t go to other cultural events.”

Mr Lee Knifton, the head of the Mental Health Foundation Scotland, acknowledges there’s only so much a festival can do. Involved in the organisation of the event for many years, he iterates “We don’t help with mental health problems whatsoever.” While it can’t act as a substitute for medication or official treatment, what the festival can do, is raise awareness and attempt to reduce stigma.

According to statistics found by the Scottish Mental Health Foundation, 20 percent of adults across 2014 to 2015 experienced symptoms of depression, an increase on the prevalence of symptoms in 2009 to 2010 (14 percent). Feelings of loneliness, low self-esteem and pressure to fit in, exacerbated by social media, are also resulting in increasing levels of body dissatisfaction and developing mental health problems in young girls across the UK, with a recent study by the UK National Health Service finding a 63 percent increase in rates of self-harm by females aged 13-16 years old between 2001-2014.

“There does seem to be an increase in mental distress,” says Knifton. “With isolation, poverty, inequality… certain groups and conditions are very worrying.” Although he thumb_img_0478_1024.jpgbelieves the overall policies regarding mental health implemented by the Scottish  government are strong and quite progressive, he notes, “there are clear gaps.”

Eaton-Lewis concedes that the festival faces challenges in reaching certain groups, and it can often be those who need support most. “It’s difficult getting people into the theatre at the best of times,” but men, he notes, can particularly find it difficult to open up about these issues. “It’s a really destructive culture… that men aren’t supposed to cry.” Looking at reports from the National Office of Statistics (ONS) from 2013, of 6000 suicides in the UK, 78 percent were committed by men.

While Eaton is quick to confirm arts can’t replace medication, the festival is attempting to minimise the sense of isolation often experienced by men, bringing in a “multiplicity of stories” in a variety of styles, from satirical cabaret to community-produced art exhibits, to help with functioning in a broader sense. However, it remains very much a work in progress.

Particularly in rural areas and Glasgow, there is a considerable social inequality and poverty, resulting in poor health and social outcomes, with minorities most affected. A thumb_IMG_0477_1024strong point of concern is the wait times of those seeking help from a relevant professional for mental health problems. In the first quarter of this year, the Scottish government failed their target of 90 percent of patients receiving treatment for Psychological Therapies within 18 weeks of their referral, achieving a lower success rate of roughly 75 percent nationally.

Seasoned contributor and member of the SMHAF curation committee, Lauren Stonebanks mirrors Knifton’s earlier sentiments. “I don’t think it helps with mental health at all,” Stonebanks said.

While she feels some minimisation of stigmas around mental health issues in Scotland is occurring, misconceptions are still something she faces regularly. Living with Borderline Personality Disorder, she notes that certain mental conditions are “less sexy” than others, more victim to persisting stereotypes and associated with being “more to blame” for one’s disorder.

When opening up to new people about her disorder, she says she is met with two usual responses. “You can sort of put them into two groups. There’s the one group who will run away and say you’re toxic, I want nothing to do with you, and there are those who say that’s another label society has given you, you’re still you.”

The festival may not specifically provide in-depth understanding of mental health or educate them on treatments, however it does generate more awareness and through her art Stonebanks is able to “help explain how [she] act[s].” Specifically through her exhibit of focus, Out of Sight, Out of Mind, a collection of 100 collaborative artworks in various mediums, she is provided an opportunity to share her experiences with others.

The benefits of the festival are more personal, providing a creative outlet for artists to thumb_IMG_0481_1024share their stories while also simply “letting other people see we can do normal stuff too,” notes Stonebanks. “Validation is a really, really powerful thing.”

While the festival can try and provide an alternative to more traditional poster campaigns which “often tackle the more negative sides” of mental health, “there’s always more that can be done,” says Knifton. He notes the long-term attitudinal shifts that need to occur. “It’s a generational issue; so many things take one or two generations to really change. It takes lots of effort, lots of time.”

Though the festival has come a long way and he is proud of all they have achieved, Knifton is ready for the long haul. “I’ll be happy if we’re still around in 10 years. Although I hope we’re not needed.”

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