Talking Heads

Talking Heads reporter Calum Tyler writes about his experiences with mental health when growing up on the Isle of Lewis and at university. 

I started having serious problems with my mental health when I was 15. I was quiet and socially awkward. I didn't have many friends and one person who I hung out with was emotionally and sometimes physically abusive.

This all happened on the Isle of Lewis, where I was born and grew up. I had problems with abusive friends during my time in secondary school. When I went into S3, the first years quickly picked up that I was an easy target and had an English accent, and they started shouting “tea and scones” at me. I lived an hour’s drive away from my school in Stornoway and I didn't have any friends that lived nearby.  

In fifth year, I started plucking my eyelashes. It was a coping mechanism, an obsessive compulsive disorder and a form of self-harm. It turned into a vicious circle where I was self-conscious of my eyelashes and that anxiety made me pluck them more.

At 16, I left school. I was having an awful time and felt lucky that I’d got good enough Highers to justify leaving. I went to Lews Castle College for a year and, although I was a lot younger than everyone else on the course, I got on well with them. However, that year was pretty tough as I found the coursework difficult and the abusive friend was still around; we were both involved in a filmmaking club. I experienced a lot of loss that year too. My grandfather, who I was very close to, died just after Christmas, and in the summer, a family member took their own life. 

In the autumn, I went to university in Edinburgh and it felt amazing. During fresher’s week I was astounded that strangers were talking to me without mocking me. I enjoyed my flat, got on well with my flatmates and made some great friends. In the next few years, though, my mental state became worse and worse. I was staying in flats that I didn't like and wasn't doing very well academically. In my third year, my mental health was so bad that I had to take a break from university and go back home to Lewis.

My family were supportive but didn't quite understand, and I found the break very difficult. I sometimes had panic attacks just from being outside. I was terrified of people on the island finding out, seeing me as this loser who tried to leave and failed. I knew how fast news spreads on the island. The help that I initially received in Stornoway just involved the therapist listing questions and ticking boxes. The questions asked included whether I owned a firearm and if I had tattoos.

After the break, I did manage to go back to university. I still had problems with flatmates, but I managed to overcome them and pass my third year. Afterwards, I felt unsure of what I wanted to do with my degree, so decided to graduate with an ordinary degree. I came back to Lewis where I knew I would be safe and looked after. I went back to the Stornoway Health Centre and got proper help through therapy. The support I received from my family and friends helped make my mental state a lot better and more stable.  

I’m now much more comfortable talking about my condition and my mental health. However, I still feel strange telling my story in public. I don’t want to come across as a victim or make out that my problems are worse than anyone else’s. I’m still in a strange place and there are a lot of bad days. But I’m also having a lot of good days and looking forward to the future.   

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.

Talking Heads reporter Emily Walker reviews Evelyn, which screened at Glasgow Film Theatre as part of the Official Selection film programme at SMHAF 2019. 

Winner of the Anti-Stigma Award at the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival, Evelyn was a film that I was eager to see. It documents a five-week walk across the UK, using routes that remain sentimental for Evelyn’s family. Evelyn was a 22-year-old man who, living with a diagnosis of schizophrenia, took his own life. GQ has asked if this is the most powerful film about male suicide ever made, hinting at the impact it will have. After watching it, I believe the answer is yes.

It’s clear from the outset that the difficulties the family have when discussing Evelyn will be emotional to watch and powerful to learn from. Orlando von Einsiedel, the director, begins to cry after just uttering Evelyn’s name within the first few moments. Despite the heavy topic of the film, the normality of the family’s relationships is clear. Arguments, bickering and teasing all play a role within the film to show you that this is their everyday life. Although this is humbling and heartwarming, it is also deeply heartbreaking, testifying to the fact that suicide can affect anyone and everyone.

The prevalence of suicide in our society is usually shown in statistics, but here we are shown the faces of those who have lost someone. Grief is never easy but with so many questions, misunderstandings and stigma surrounding mental health and suicide, this kind of loss seems to bring with it complex difficulties for the people connected to it. 

During the walk, everyone wore mics. This allowed the filmmakers to cut in and out from conversations, while the camera was focusing on someone different. During one conversation we see Leon, a friend of Evelyn’s, discuss happy memories he has, while Jack, another friend, walks away in a bid to escape the pain and sadness brought by these memories. Jack’s mumbles are only caught on mic. The sadness and anger you can hear in his voice combined with Leon’s affirmational words show the audience the difficulties they face when remembering a loved one. The juxtaposition of Leon’s memories and Jack’s pain illustrates how painful yet necessary it was for those connected to Evelyn to remember him and the time they shared. 

The film crew must have had equipment either strapped to them – or walked backwards at times – to capture the conversations, giving the audience an intimate view of the discussions taking place. The unstable shots and the frequent refocusing allows you to really feel as though you are there as they reveal the family’s most personal moments. These shots are punctuated by wide ranging drone footage, allowing the beautiful landscape to balance out the intensity of the conversations. This provides a visual breath of fresh air and much-needed time to deal with what we have just experienced. I wonder if, in doing so, the director was trying to celebrate the beauty in life, while dealing with the complexities and tragedies of human existence?

In dealing with a young man’s suicide, the film inevitably brought to mind the issues and conversations around male mental health in the UK. Surprisingly, one of the most powerful scenes was one which turned the camera back on Orlando. Leon pushes him to realise that he is using the filming as a shield, asking others about their feelings instead of discussing his own. It’s a pivotal scene, making it clear that Orlando is concerned with opening up and being vulnerable, especially around his siblings.

This scene shows the turmoil men can face when discussing their emotions. Orlando seems concerned about how others may perceive him, his own fear stifling any real chance to talk. Until this moment he never discussed with his family his own feelings regarding the death of his brother. But when Leon finally does coax him over the edge of the wall he had built up, Orlando’s physical reaction emphasises the pent-up emotion within him. His tears are those that build up inside a person for years, that when finally broken down are too intense to attribute to emotion.

I could talk at length about how the stories of Evelyn’s death shared by everyone in the film are ones that people desperately need to hear. Those of a mother, a father, a sibling, a friend. It’s clear that we need to be able to openly discuss these stories and experiences. It could be the most important film on male suicide ever made, but only if we as a society allow it to make its full impact and carry on what it begins: a conversation about the stigma around suicide.

The objective of the film was for the family to discuss the loss of their brother in a bid to aid their own mental health and allow them to grieve together. But the final outcome is a film that takes on the stigma around suicide, breaking down the shame and delving into complex feelings, feelings of failure and the fear of forgetting the person now gone.

Throughout the film, the family are keen to share their memories of Evelyn, to preserve his life in their collective memory, long after he lost the ability to see the value in it. I hope that it will be a help to families and friends going through similar experiences, that seeing versions of their pain and grief on screen may give people comfort and support instead of feelings of isolation. I hope that it helps people realise that they are allowed to feel upset no matter how much time has passed, and that it is possible to speak about those they have lost with their loved ones. I hope that one day it will be possible to do this without fear of pity, shame or judgement. And for anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts and feelings, Evelyn also might show the beauty in life, in human connection, and in the solace that talking about our feelings can bring. Ultimately, I hope that Evelyn will support those fighting through difficult times and that it will save lives.

by Emily Walker

If you’re worried about your mental health, seeking help early is the best way to get back on track. See your GP, or start by talking to a friend or calling a helpline. Samaritans volunteers are there to listen. The phone line is free to call and available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Call 116 123. 

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 Louise Farquhar writes about Documentary Shorts, which screened as part of the SMHAF 2019 film programme on Saturday 4th May.

Reflecting the wide spectrum of mental health, along with the wonderful diversity of SMHAF 2019, this carefully curated event brought together five very unique short documentaries. Taking the audience through an evolving narrative, each film followed people marginalised by society as a result of mental illness and trauma, sensitively highlighting the harrowing effects of futility and isolation. But there was also hope. Every one of these moving and powerful films shared a strong positive message; whether that was one of acceptance, recovery or a call to action. Although challenging to watch, this series of documentary shorts was ultimately very uplifting, infusing feelings of love, courage and understanding through a harsh world. With film, it is not only the action that speaks to the audience but also the spaces in between, the silences and the thoughts. These films all encapsulate this principle beautifully and give a strong voice to those who can’t always be heard.

Asylum, directed by Jaap van Heusden and Jefta Varwick, starts in a confused state, with the world upside down, flicking between sharp and blurred images as subtitles state, ‘life has no meaning’. We are in the head of protagonist, David Brown. This ultra-subjective film submerses us in the life of a young psychotic man, who has lived in a number of psychiatric institutions and is on the move again. The constantly alienating camera work, shifting focus from shots of sterile interiors to unrecognisable blurred images and then bucolic forest scenes, is oppressive but also powerful as it parallels the disordered state of David’s mind when he hears voices. He describes the ‘entity’ in his head once offering him a choice to kill his brother or jump from a window. He chose to jump. With occasional comical moments, which add realism and relief to his condition, he talks candidly about attempts he made to end his life. Whilst at times he longs for death by suicide or euthanasia, he also frankly admits being just as scared of dying as of being alive. This film masterfully crawls from his mind into ours, infiltrating our own thoughts with invisible voices until the psychoses seem our own. In one particular moving moment, David hugs a tree as he walks through the forest. Although obviously contrived for the film, this is something he often finds peace doing and we feel his sense of calm.

Enjoying a world premiere at SMHAF 2019, the second documentary, Comics by Monica Zinn, countered the disturbing disorientation of the first feature with an instantly bright and cheerful character, bringing sunny yellow tones and sounds of laugher immediately to the screen. Rose Turner is a young artist, whose experience of anxiety and depression started after the suicide of a friend. Amidst leafy sunshine scenes, happy music and smiling faces the film depicts her deeply personal struggle to overcome the bleakness and disconnection triggered by this trauma. As she describes warm memories of her childhood on the family farm, with loving parents and big family, the sudden starkness of how an unexpected event can fracture mental health is clear. Rose talks openly about being unable to maintain her studies during this time and the feelings of fatigue and isolation she succumbed to. These descriptions are set against carefully crafted idyllic scenes of nature, narrated beautifully using the metaphor of a lukewarm day. Yet this is a story of recovery. Rose called on four lights of healing; namely kindness, stories, hiking and art. From these she turned from the darkness of depression and anxiety. This powerful film, peppered throughout with warmth and laughter, is a positive story of prioritising health, learning coping strategies and becoming empowered. Giving a clear message of hope to young people, this film should be shown in every school, university and college in the world.

The third feature, Raquel, is directed by Tania Cattebeke and set in Paraguay’s capital city, Asuncion. Raquel Varga, a 54-year old schizophrenic, has been living on the streets for two decades after mental illness affected her ability to continue as a student of architecture. Cattebeke knew of Raquel through her sister, who works in social services, and started the feature with a clear intention to document the harsh realities of Raquel’s life. The hand-held camera technique and peppering of stills amongst the imagery create a real and instant bond with the old lady, even eliciting shock when she is erratically aggressive. Interestingly, the perspective changes at this point as Cattebeke sees herself as ‘violent’ in attempting to define and force Raquel’s story to fit a model we all expect in these circumstances. Now Raquel assumes control of the narrative and suddenly the film becomes totally fascinating. In contrast to the start, Raquel demonstrates a sense of acceptance and understanding of her life, as well as genuine pleasure in what she does, from dancing to drawing intricate chalk pictures on the pavement. In place of a tortured narrative, we see Raquel as strong and self-assured: a human being who knows how to live and to laugh.

Through the Cracks, by Nathan Fagan and Luke Daly, captures the degradation and loneliness experienced by families living in emergency accommodation in Ireland. Although filmed using actors, the narrative is taken directly from first-hand accounts of mothers and their children. Initially children talk optimistically about their futures, maybe wanting to be a teacher when they grow up, as we are shown them playing in parks or with Lego. The paradox, however, is swift and unsettling as mothers share their guilt and shame of being homeless, along with real fears for their children’s deteriorating mental health. Filmed in natural light, drawing on relatable scenes, we are shown the relentless search the families must undertake to find shelter. In these ‘hotels’, children are unable to socialise with others their own age, spending time in cramped rooms, bored and exposed to a scary and inappropriate adult world. The film, like the mothers, sees a very different future for the children. Pointed unashamedly at Government policies, this documentary is a call to action. It clearly demands an end to this miserable situation.  The heavy heads of the audience, which hung in futile despair throughout the film, lift at this point amidst a feeling of confidence that, as a society, we can demand a better life for these people.

Then came the final film in the programme, Model Childhood. Winner of the Grand Jury prize at SMHAF 2019, Tim Mercier’s astounding documentary joins him as a filmmaker embarking on a journey to find answers to his experience of childhood sexual trauma. Immediately opening with loud and attention-demanding sounds, there is also a poetic quality to the start of the film as it settles by the river on a summer day, watching nature and people thrive in the sunshine. A sudden cut to the very ordinary and unkempt surroundings of Mercier’s flat, where he films himself using basic equipment, is a sharp contrast and harshly realistic. He is clearly isolated, unable to talk to family about his experience and living in a world where a very definite stigma exists around sexual assault. As someone who always enjoyed making models, he starts by creating an Austin Cambridge, which seems like a fun clay model of an old car at first, until we discover it to be the scene of the horrific crime. The narrative stays with him as he reconstructs the day of his assault using more animated clay models, intermixed with strikingly direct footage of him as he returns to the forest where the assault took place. Against a backdrop of insects frenzied around a streetlight, he describes the frantic mode started by this traumatic experience, which is so much more than a single incident, affecting every day of his life since then. His words, “Look what it does to a man,” are arresting, suspending the viewer in Mercier’s haunted world for that moment. A beautiful ending then softens the sheer depiction of malevolence, violence and disgust aroused by the film. Mercier stands amidst the beech trees, which he describes as mainly growing tall and strong except for some which have kinks, as though they have something to grow around. We can all take something from this. Model Childhood is a courageous film and Tim Mercier is a generous artist to share it. This film will benefit anyone who watches it.

Louise Farquhar is a writer, covering the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival for the first time. She lives in Glasgow with her family and too many books. 

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.

Veronika Raila lives in Germany. She can neither speak, nor walk, and she has been completely dependent on others to assist her with the entirety of her care needs since birth. Despite this, Sandgirl is not a story about the struggle and plight of a disabled woman with complex care needs, but a visually enchanting celebration of an artistic, creative and highly intelligent mind. Not only is Veronika intelligent, but she has a photographic memory and the ability to write both poetically and philosophically with an astonishing degree of talent.

Veronika, a cowriter of the documentary, illustrates her story using her own words, narrated through the voice of someone else. She describes her disability and her day-to-day life using evocative poetry that provides a fascinating insight into the creativity, writings and introspectiveness of a woman who was labelled at birth as having an IQ of zero. Akin to this, Veronika’s writings and poetry are accompanied by the sand art and animation of Anne Löper, who uniquely captured the emotion of Veronika’s story, and the beautiful cinematography of Ines Thomson.

The film follows Veronika and her family, in particular her main care giver and mother, during their everyday lives, from University, where Veronika studies German literature and catholic theology, to ancient monasteries in Italy where the family spends their annual holiday. Her mother, almost always by Veronika’s side, shares a deep, caring and supportive bond with her daughter. One of the few moments of pity or sadness within the film is when Veronika’s mother, before understanding her daughter’s potential, describes the guilt she felt for almost giving up on her child. Veronika herself displays very little anguish towards her circumstances, instead she wholeheartedly embraces it, which she sums up succinctly by stating “I love my life because it is mine”.

Sandgirl provides a colourful, poetic and mesmerising insight into the mind and life of an incredible young thinker. The documentary itself focuses more on the talent and creative works of Veronika than it does on her physical impairment. Sandgirl should be celebrated for taking an, unfortunately, uncommon approach in regard to the depiction of people with mental health issues and/or disabilities. This intriguing documentary not only investigates the depth of Veronika’s mind, but also questions common discourses about the importance of able-bodiedness and speech for communication and connection.

by Lisa Rashleigh

Lisa is a 25-year-old Australian living in Glasgow. She has a background in youth work and homelessness, and is currently working as an independent advocate. Lisa is passionate about both mental health and the Glaswegian music and art scene.  Follow her on Instagram @bin_leisel or on Twitter @LisaRashleigh.

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 Ella Duncan interviewed Patrick Keast about his exhibition Disconnected, which continues at Cyrenians’ Flavour and Haver Cook School in Edinburgh until Friday 31st May, as part of SMHAF 2019.

Patrick Keast has an exhibition of his photography showing at Cyrenians, a fitting location as it was through the Cyrenians Addiction Recovery programme that Patrick first realized he had a talent for photography. Disconnected deals with themes of dispossession and exclusion, and the way that people can often be ignored by society and fall through the cracks. Many of Patrick’s photos were taken on the way to and from his addiction appointments, and show a stark juxtaposition between people who have, and those who have not.

Mental health issues are often strongly linked to addiction issues, and both are still surrounded by a level of stigma. With his photography, Patrick hopes to challenge these pre-conceived ideas, provoke a reaction of kindness in the viewer and to “make people think again.” I spoke to Patrick on the day the exhibition opened, hoping get a more in depth perspective on the exhibition and the themes displayed.

You started by taking photographs going to and from your addiction appointments. Can you explain what the decision was behind this?

It was just handy. It was available, something I could carry with me. It wasn’t part of any plan; I didn’t think it was going to lead to anything. It was just one of those choices someone makes, like learning to play the guitar. You just pick something up, and go with it!

You began by using second hand equipment out of necessity, do you still?

I’ve upgraded my equipment as I’ve went. So I’ve got into a more pro-spec range of equipment now. It was along the lines of reward and success; for example if I got an exhibition put together then I thought ‘Well, I should buy a more expensive camera’. Always trying to improve in different ways, and a new camera and a lens gives you more creative choices. Every time I made progress I thought ‘Well, I’ll invest in that’.

Why do you think it is important to document the things you photograph?

For me every photograph’s got a memory attached to it, it’s a place in time that I remember. For me personally, looking at that photograph brings back that day to me. So it might have been a day for example I went to an appointment, or attended a recovery meeting, or came out of hospital, or an interview with the benefits agency. Before and after, I’d be taking pictures. Because there’s a connection with that memory, it helps me have a narrative in my head when I reflect back on things. I’ve built stories about other people’s recovery also, rehab courses, graduations, days out, events etc.

Do you think it’s important for people who aren’t in recovery to see your photographs?

It’s things that people pass by, on the street, basically shut out, tune out. Don’t wanna see it, don’t wanna hear about it. People will make judgments about who they see and the condition they’re living in. Basically a lot of victim blaming.

But bringing it into a photograph, what I hope to create is very empathic images, so it’ll stir something in the viewer and they’ll get an emotional response instead of a negative response. They’ll have some kind of feeling for a fellow human being who is basically in trouble, deep, deep trouble.

I don’t know about changing peoples behaviors, as that’s not my role, but I think if there’s a shift in someone’s perception their feelings will be a bit different, and their reactions will change.

You’ve said you find taking photographs “liberating”. In what ways do you find it liberating?

It’s liberating because it’s an altered state of mind from the regular A to B. You’re in a creative zone in your brain, you’re engaging with your sight, your senses, your perception, three dimensional space. Looking at things with a fresh perspective. I’m engaging with my environment in a different way. Instead of having that sort of hyper-vigilance where I’m looking for trouble – I’m looking for a photograph.

Do you feel that photography has helped your mental health?

Yeah, immensely, yeah. It’s given me a form of self-expression. I get to share some of my experiences through photography. It gets me out of self-destructive thought modes; it gets me out of low moods, when I can’t be bothered.

It takes me out of my regular, day-to-day 9-5. My ordinary everyday concerns kinda diminish. So I believe it helps with tension and stresses building up over time. If I go out and have a break from that, when I come back to the tensions and stresses, they’ve actually gone down. Things aren’t as grim as I’ve made out. Having that mental pause, a change of place, a change of pace – whatever issue I was concerned about kind of processes in the background.

Do you think art is good for breaking down barriers on subjects like mental health, which can be difficult to talk about?

People might have certain prejudices about what mental health is and how mental health issues affect people. If you see someone who has had mental health issues, addiction issues and you can see some great artwork they’ve done, you’ll think differently about that person. Plus you’ll get a message. This person

is relating to me through art, through media, through photography. Could be poetry, could be sculpture. People might think ‘Oh, I didn’t know lads and lassies like that could even do something like that’.

Do you think this project can challenge those prejudices and stigmas – especially around addiction and recovery?

Rather than just being photography, it’s the photographer. I don’t make any secret of the fact that I’m in recovery, that I’ve had addiction issues, that I’m rebuilding my life.

Part of the stigma is the shame, because people don’t want to talk about it. It brings down the stigma because I’m not being secretive, shameful or hiding my past. That’s liberating it itself and people can feel a bit freer to talk about where they’ve been, what their life journey has been and what’s brought them to where they are today.

It [mental health] doesn’t define me, it’s not the biggest and most important thing in my life, but it is something I think needs to be shared. I felt my photography needed to be shared.

Finally, the theme of this year’s festival is ‘Connection’. What does connection mean to you?

The type of relationships you have, especially societal relationships and how you relate to the society you live in, the culture you’re part of. The more positive relationships you have within the society you live in, the more connected you are. Once they start dropping off- then you’re disconnected. You don’t have those positive relationships, everything’s dysfunctional, everything a problem.

How we come to understand who we are is in the way we connect with other people.

Patrick’s exhibition is on at the Cyrenians Flavour and Haver Cook School until Friday 31st May. Click here to find out more.

Ella Duncan is a mum of two wee boys and lives in Edinburgh. She currently works at Santosa Yoga Studio as Promotions and Events Manager and writes for fun. She loves baking and running and meditating and Prince, not necessarily in that order. You can follow her on Instagram @bella_duncan_ella.

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.