Talking Heads

In our latest Talking Heads feature, Amy Ortiz reviews the SMHAF Writing Awards 2019.

Right in the middle of Buchanan Street, a unique pocket of performance, storytelling and ceremony unfolded inside St George’s Tron Church on Wednesday, where the annual SMHAF Writing Awards 2019, held in partnership with Bipolar Scotland, took place. With a stage backlit by two ceiling high stained glass windows and twinkling with decorative fairy lights, this was an atmosphere guaranteed to be remembered.

This year’s awards also coincide with the 70th Anniversary of The Mental Health Foundation, who announced their symbolic project ‘70 Stories’ to mark the occasion. This project aims to connect writings gathered from SMHAF participants across it’s 13 years and provide a “more compelling portrait of mental health in 2019.” Further information can be found via the SMHAF website here.

The Writing Awards are a cornerstone of SMHAF, underscoring its core values by addressing the need for diverse personal expression and stories that further important discussion. They also provide a supportive platform for first-time writers and creatives to gain due recognition. From the many burgeoning talents across Scotland that applied under this year’s theme of “Connected”, twelve outstanding pieces of prose, poetry and more were selected as finalists and read out in excerpts on the evening by the writers themselves or those chosen in their place.

Ian Rankin, author of the best-selling Rebus crime series and host of this year’s awards, sensitively introduced the evening by speaking of writing as therapy, as a means of escape. This sentiment, which set the tone for the rest of the event, was soon echoed by the soulful singer-songwriter Emma Pollock confirming, “books are my favourite way of escaping,” then launching into a powerful short set that stirred up emotional landscapes through deft lyrics.

One by one the twelve writers read out their excerpts, each with an individual flair of style and interpretation of “Connected”. From a heartfelt poem entitled ‘Shoormal’ by Aileen Paterson, a Shetland word meaning the point at which the sea meets the shore, to Laura Barbour’s glorious coming-of-age short story of male sexuality, inextricably tied to some David Bowie worship. This was an evening of diverse perspectives brought together by one, universal theme connecting people and wider communities to experiences of mental health.

Shirley Gillan, the winner of the Writing Awards 2019 had not just one, but two of her impactful short stories selected as finalists: ‘Fragments’ and first-place clinching ‘Outside In.’ Both explore the pertinent, devastating lack of support for refugees in the UK and in her words, “pay homage to the courage of people who are caught up our in immigration and asylum seeking system which is deliberately designed to mess up people’s mental health.” ‘Outside In’ tactfully tells the story of Navid, an immigrant in search of the sense of community he desperately misses, and an escape from the cold fringe of society he’s confronted with in an environment that seems to acknowledge his existence only as far as a “moving mop.”

In second place came ‘Message in a Bottle’ by Eilidh Clark, a narrative that switches perspective from one character to the other, exploring the controlling relationship between characters Alistair and Claire that is marred by broken boundaries, emotional abuse and an overall sense that Claire has been backed into a suffocating, isolated corner. It is from this, that Claire finds connection in very unlikely places. A six year old girl, a fridge magnet, an elderly widow, all in response to messages in a bottle that she throws out across Ruby Bay. Communicating via message in a bottle serves as an empowering and poetic final resort to regain her autonomy, standing on the cliff edge from which she sends her messages “one hundred feet above him, tall and solid, and morbidly unashamed.”

‘Twenty Five, Vanilla Milkshake’ took the third spot, beautifully written by Benny Allen. This story deals with the past, loss and regret, all artfully woven into an unlikely early morning Café scene and through the eyes of a young Mindy, who reveals an innocent wisdom that only children seem to possess. ‘Vanilla Milkshake’ is sweet by name and character yet cut through with pangs of sorrow and mystery that pack this story with an emotive punch. In a particularly memorable line Benny Allen writes, “Curved in the pupils you could see your own thoughts. Piled up memories you won't even remember. The stack of regrets you don’t want to have.”

As Ian Rankin pointed out on the evening and urged to set aside the cliché for a moment, without a doubt each and every one of the shortlisted finalists are winners in their own right. This year’s Writing Awards have truly been treated to this talented group of writers and the stories they so generously offered that will continue to connect and inspire all those who get a chance to read them.

Click here to read the twelve shortlisted stories.

Amy Ortiz is a Belfast born design student living in Glasgow and self-described weirdo. She strives to involve herself in local creative goings-on, especially when they combine arts with meaningful social impact.

The Talking Heads project, in partnership with See Me, brings together a team of volunteer journalists to produce written articles and other creative responses to festival events. Click here to find out more.

Talking Heads reporter Ali Blatcher shares her experience of the 2019 SMHAF Writing Awards, held in partnership with Bipolar Scotland on Wednesday 22 May.

This time last year I was flying my way up from Brighton to Glasgow to attend this event and read out my published poem, Split. This year I am at the St George’s Tron Church once again to celebrate other writers’ published pieces.

This event is run by the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival, the Mental Health Foundation and is in association with Bipolar Scotland. The night bursts with creativity and the theme this year is “Connected”. The way it works is there are ten overall winners, extended to twelve this year because of the sheer quality of the entries. There are then three final winning pieces.

The night was hosted by well-known author Ian Rankin, who managed to maintain an enjoyable atmosphere despite some of the writings being very serious in what they were addressing. The venue was stunning and the light shining through the stained glass windows of the church illuminated each writer as they took to the stage.

Each writer read out their winning entry or an extract of it; some were moving whilst some made the audience laugh. Some introduced new words into Ian Rankin’s vocabulary- like “Shoormal”, a Shetland word for the point at which the sea meets the land! All winning entries were well read and well received.

In third prize was Benny Allen’s “Twenty-Five, Vanilla Milkshake”, which was read out by Julie Cameron from the Mental Health Foundation. Second prize went to Eilidh Clark’s “Message in a Bottle”, and Eilidh gave a speech, which brought some of the audience members to tears, about how important it is to have someone to connect to, even if it’s a stranger. Shirley Gillan received first prize with “Outside In” and with this piece of work Shirley wanted to pay homage to the courage of people who are seeking asylum and said she is grateful to SMHAF for acknowledging this.

The Writing Awards is a very humbling evening full of talented people, all of whom are now connected to each other through their published works. Well done to SMHAF for hosting this wonderful night and offering these kinds of opportunities to budding writers! In the words of host and author Ian Rankin, isn’t it amazing what people can do with twenty-six letters of the alphabet?

by Ali Blatcher

Ali Blatcher writes about mental health at thebloggingnoggin.com. She can also be found on Facebook at The Blogging Noggin.

The Talking Heads project, in partnership with See Me, brings together a team of volunteer journalists to produce written articles and other creative responses to festival events. Click here to find out more.

Talking Heads reporter Calum Tyler reviews Final Ascent: The Legend of Hamish MacInnes.

Final Ascent: The Legend of Hamish MacInnes tells the story of one of Britain’s most renowned mountaineers, an accomplished inventor, a photographer, a stuntman and an author whose writings and inventions have contributed a lot to mountain rescue.  Yet this documentary doesn’t entirely focus on this man’s achievements.  Director Robbie Fraser instead structures the film around the time that Hamish suffered from memory loss and had to be sectioned.

The documentary begins with three of Hamish’s most prominent friends, including actor and traveller Michael Palin, giving quick appraisals of his works, achievements and personality.  However, the film’s story turns around quite quickly as it addresses the time Hamish spent in a mental hospital.  Hamish had been found disorientated outside his home in Glencoe and had been sectioned in a psychiatric hospital in the Highlands against his will.  He was suffering from severe memory loss which was caused by a urinary tract infection.

The film proceeds to tell stories of Hamish’s life through interviews with Hamish MacInnes, archival footage, re-enactments and photos from his vast archive.  The stories tell how he got into climbing, his expeditions, his rescue missions, his inventions and his experiences working on big blockbuster movies such as The Eiger Sanction.  As well as these incredible tales, there are stories of the friends he has lost to climbing accidents including a story about him losing a very good rescue dog in an avalanche.

All of these stories are intermingled with the stories from his experience in a mental hospital.  Hamish describes how he feels that his sectioning was unjustified and how he didn’t recognise the person the medical records were describing.  He also mentions his longing for freedom and even talks about how he had attempted to escape.  The most remarkable story from this time of Hamish’s life is how he was able to regain almost all of his memory back by looking at his photographs and watching his old films. 

The film is an incredible tale of recovery and makes the effects of old age very visible.  It has given a platform for Hamish MacInnes to talk openly about a very traumatic period in his life rather than his history of climbing and of mountain rescue.  Both the positive and negative qualities of his personality shine through the film giving you an intimate view of his life.  The only criticism I have of the film is that the stories from Hamish’s past and from his time being sectioned do not flow well together.

The event concluded with a Q and A with the director Robbie Fraser.  In this he detailed some of the stories he had left out, his experience when making the film and working with Hamish.  He also explained that he didn’t want people to see this movie as a takedown of the NHS or that they did the wrong thing. 

By Calum Tyler

Calum is a 23 year old living in Lewis.  Having battled through depression and anxiety, Calum is very passionate about telling stories about mental health issues.

The Talking Heads project, in partnership with See Me, brings together a team of volunteer journalists to produce written articles and other creative responses to festival events. Click here to find out more.

Final Ascent: The Legend of Hamish MacInnes is screening throughout Scotland, supported by SMHAF. Click here for full dates.

Talking Heads reporter Rachel Alexander explores what this year's festival theme, 'Connected', means to her.

The theme of this year’s SMHAF is Connected. To be perfectly honest, I know the sort of thing that I should say. A sense of connection is shown to improve mental health etc etc. But do you know what? All I really want to tell you is how incredibly lonely it feels to be mentally ill, how entirely isolated it is possible to feel on every level. Talking about loneliness can feel awkward and embarrassing, but it would be disingenuous of me to write about connection without acknowledging its existence and its power. In short, I’ve never been as lonely as when I have been in periods of acute mental ill-health: periods when I have conversely needed connection more than ever. Equally, however, I believe that a desire for – and need for – connection is not limited to those of us who ‘enjoy’ less robust mental health.

A sense of self

When I have a particularly severe panic attack, I often feel separated from myself, as if I’m not really present or not really occupying my own body. It’s a horribly confusing sensation and one that’s really hard to explain. The logical part of my brain knows that it’s not possible for me to float away but try telling yourself that when you feel out of your mind with anxiety. Confession: although I’m pretty well at the moment, I still wear my heaviest boots to the dentist to keep me anchored to the chair. As weird as this may sound if you’ve never experienced a panic attack, it’s actually reasonably common, and depersonalisation and derealisation appear on the NHS list of symptoms associated with panic disorder. It’s hard to even think about connecting to others or the outside world when you’re stripped even of a sense of connection with yourself.

As well as this very physical sense of disconnection, anxiety can easily rob you of mental and emotional connection. For me, acute anxiety means that my concentration is gone, and I can’t read. I’ve never made a secret of the fact that I think reading is the answer to almost everything. When I’ve been unable to travel or have otherwise missed out on things, reading has been a lifeline and allowed me to feel a semblance of connection with the wider world. Of course, it’s not the same as being able to go out and do things for yourself, but it can be a valuable interim solution.

How then do you reconnect with yourself? Especially when so many of the things that make you feel like yourself may not be possible: work, seeing friends and family, and otherwise being part of a community. In my experience? Slowly and carefully. Do your best to acknowledge and accept the way that you feel. I realise how uncomfortable the very thought of that is, but I promise that it helps. After all, you are not the sum total of your mental illness: you may be ill, but you are still you.

Feeling disconnected

As I mentioned above, mental ill-health can very easily strip away structures like work and a social life. How do you remain connected to the people and places around you when you’re robbed of these straightforward, natural means of connection? How about when you’re scared to leave your flat? It’s not easy and, unfortunately, it depends very much on the people that you have around you.

A lot of my friends fell away when I first experienced panic disorder. To be completely honest, many have fallen away since too. Those of us who are in the grip of mental ill health can be hard work. Hard work. Flaky. Unreliable. Let’s be real, if you do manage to get together with someone, it’s likely that you’ve got precious little conversation when you factor in the mental exhaustion of making and sticking to an arrangement, and the fact that you’ve probably not got much news aside from medication, therapy and doctor’s appointments.

So, what happens to you when it’s too hard for others to make those connections with you, or they decide that you’re not worth the effort? The loneliness and fear and self-loathing that you’re probably already experiencing bloom and take root. The disordered voices and thoughts that come to you and whisper of your inadequacy have evidence of your innate worthlessness. This is exactly why connection is so important. In short, connection is what can save us.

Being connected

I wrote earlier about the fact that I’ve never felt as lonely as I have when I’ve been very unwell. That’s completely true. However, it is also true that my friendships now are more genuine and more valuable than they ever were before. I have friends who understand me and understand how I feel. This is partly because I’ve been open and honest with them about what I’m thinking and feeling (something best done when you’re feeling stronger.) I used to hide the reality of why I didn’t / wouldn’t / couldn’t do certain things because I was embarrassed or ashamed. This lack of transparency cost me friendships. Being honest with friends and family gives you a better chance of helping them to support you. I’ve said that quite casually, as if it’s easy, and it’s really not. The truth is that you may not feel up to being honest about how you feel. That’s okay. It’s all okay.

If you are going to feel connected to other people and the world around you, you have to be open to connection. This will probably mean that you need to accept that you are worthy of people’s interest and time. You are. You deserve people who will be flexible and open to adapting plans they make with you. Interestingly, being vulnerable yourself allows other people to reciprocate and forges strong friendships; proper friendships.

It’s also important to acknowledge that connection is worth all of the effort and potential discomfort. Finding people who understand you, even better empathise with you, goes such a long way to helping you feel more human. Just as a descent into mental illness can feel like a vicious cycle, where each loss and lack and failure lead to another step back, the journey back “up” is cumulative and success breeds success. Connection is success.

I’ve written this based on my own experience with panic disorder and anxiety over the last fifteen years, but also simply my experience as a human who knows that connection can be tough at the best of times. Please hold on to the hope that things will get better and you will feel more connected in the time still to come. Seek out people and experiences that make you feel worthwhile and understood. Things that give you a sense of purpose. A sense of belonging. A sense of usefulness. Finally, a long time ago when I very much needed to hear it, my Dad told me that “this too shall pass.” Things can get worse as well as getting better, but he’s not been wrong yet.

by Rachel Alexander

Rachel is 36 and lives in Edinburgh. Interested in writing, feminism and mental health, she’s an English teacher to trade, and passionate about learning as well as teaching. She loves stories of all kinds, and believes they are a uniquely powerful way of changing the world. Tweets at @rachalexwrites and Instagrams at @rachjanealex.

The Talking Heads project, in partnership with See Me, brings together a team of volunteer journalists to produce written articles and other creative responses to festival events. Click here to find out more.

Mental health can be challenging to discuss. It is a well-known fact. These challenges only grow when the conversation is about a personal experience of an illness rarely discussed in the media, within support groups or among friends and families. Psychosis is one such illness. Trying to explain what psychosis can feel like could be seen as a nigh on impossible task, but, through the use of art and narrative, Emily Furneaux has managed to do just that. By immersing us into her story, and carefully controlling the narrative we are exposed to, she opens up a dialogue that even those clued up on mental health often haven’t been attuned to. Furneaux’s walking tour She Stepped Backwards in Front of the Words Behind Her, gives the audience access to a truthful and deeply personal account of a period of psychosis, while allowing for audience interpretation.

Speaking with the artist after the tour, she explained to me that in much of her work she finds herself weaving and layering stories through one another. This results in the production of a collaborative narrative that has the capacity to discuss personal experiences. Her exhibition ile de Sable for example, used the analogy of an island that after previously being discovered was described as "undiscovered" in 2014 to discuss the break up she was going through at that time. In She Stepped Backwards… Furneaux uses her own experiences as the central plot, employing poetic language to describe her lived experience with psychosis, creating an alternative world for the listener to inhabit.

We experience this as we walk around Glasgow, with Furneaux’s audio recordings weaving stories and imagery through each other. This creates artistic expressions of alternative realities, which can at first be disorientating and make us feel quite separate from them. However, after further exploration, the stories begin to make sense in a nonsensical way.

One example of this is when Furneaux discusses being in Glasgow, but it feeling like America. Glasgow had taken on the atmosphere, style and smell of Kansas City. The uniqueness of one place was being transplanted to another, causing the two to amalgamate in her mind. This layering of stories isn’t just a metaphor: it becomes Furneaux’s reality during her experiences with psychosis.

Listening to the piece gives a deeper understanding of how our mental state can affect our lived reality in more ways than just our mood or outward displays of emotion. This was really eye-opening, as it goes a long way towards explaining the power of mental health. The ‘feel of a city’ is something many of us discuss however no experience is ever exactly the same. Common understandings of places run through our experiences but their personal interpretation can live within our memory. Frequently expressed in art and film, here Furneaux begins to project these memories onto the reality around her, raising the question of what reality really is, if we all experience different versions.

Listening to the audio through personal headphones is isolating and creates a world inside the mind of the listener that we have no control over. Her voice and poetic descriptions can completely separate us from the world around us, mimicking the feelings of loneliness and isolation that can come from mental illness. But it goes further, creating a new reality for the listener, one that recognises the disconnect between ourselves and the world around us, something that is especially poignant with the theme of the festival being Connected.

The story is told in the third person, giving the listener an opportunity to view it from an objective bird’s eye view. Making sure that we never think of ourselves as the subject of the narrative, this also allows Furneaux to keep a level of distance, reiterating that the narrative belongs to someone else who is inviting us to listen. This is disconcerting, but effective in allowing us to understand what a period of psychosis can feel and sound like.

The intricate map is not simple to follow like a Google map. Studying the monochrome illustration shows a clear route but combined with having an audio story to focus on and cars to dodge, it can be mystifying to follow. This places emphasis on the journey that our minds can take us on if we experience psychosis. Furneaux encourages us to explore, explaining that you shouldn’t be concerned if you come away from the path. Therefore, no two experiences of the tour are the same. Pausing at points, stopping for breaks, or meeting someone on the street are all part of the journey, bringing you back to reality with a bump when it happens. Your perspective of her work will be truly unique.

Creating a whole new view of the streets through the audio while you walk them really gives the illusion of walking in someone else’s shoes. It’s a completely immersive experience, bringing you into a different world, at times mimicking a different mental state. Furneaux gives a clear and personal account of a period of psychosis, creating a unique and intense experience. She Stepped Backwards… educates us on what it can feel like to be so isolated by our own mind that it affects our realities.

Psychosis doesn’t get a lot of airtime when it comes to discussions around mental health, partly due to the fact that there is too much stigma and not enough empathy surrounding it. This tour invites participants into an experience of the illness, in a bid to begin a societal shift towards holding discussions around it. The technique of constructing an experience in this way can give us the tools to build an empathetic understanding of an illness that is greatly stigmatised and discriminated against.

by Emily Walker

She Stepped Backwards in Front of the Words Behind Her is open until Sat 25 May. Collect a map and audio from 12pm-4pm Thu-Sun from Many Studios and take the tour in your own time. Emily Furneaux will also be giving live performative tours on Sun 26 May. Tickets are FREE and can be booked here

The Talking Heads project, in partnership with See Me, brings together a team of volunteer journalists to produce written articles and other creative responses to festival events. Click here to find out more.