Talking Heads

Inspired by Alan Bissett's play about Syd Barrett, One Thinks of It All as a DreamTalking Heads reporter Matt Shields explores the relationship between drugs and mental health, asking whether we will ever know the extent to which Barrett's drug use was the cause of his mental health issues and discussing different perspectives on how various drugs affect our mental wellbeing. 

Alan Bissett’s One Thinks of It All as a Dream explores the life of original Pink Floyd frontman Syd Barrett, as he changed from a young budding musician at the helm of pop stardom, to the bewildered character narrated through much of Pink Floyd’s work after his departure. At some point during his time with the band, Barrett’s mental health began to deteriorate to the point where he became nearly unrecognisable, a process illustrated in Bissett’s play.

Some believe it could have originated from the trauma of losing his father to cancer just before his 16th birthday. Others feel that it was due to the pressures of being in the public eye, something Syd was said to have found incredibly stressful, so much so that he quit the business in the 1970s and became widely characterised as a recluse. Some, however, believed that Syd’s issues with mental health primarily stemmed from his frequent ingestion of hallucinogenic drugs

Nobody knows for sure, and it is possible that it was a combination of all these factors, but band members and relatives have claimed that Syd’s drug use did become an issue.  Fellow artist Duggie Fields, who shared an apartment with Barrett in the late 1960s, described it as ‘the last key to unlocking Syd’s door’. Barrett’s transformation from a happy extrovert to a depressed introvert was gradual, though there does seem to have been a major tipping point, with many friends, such as former Pink Floyd bandmate Richard Wright, telling stories of how Syd became ‘a completely different person’ after a drug-fuelled long weekend away. While no one remembers the exact date of this particular weekend for sure, people have since referred to it as the ‘lost weekend’.

As Syd’s drug use became more prominent, so did his erratic behaviour and his issues with mental health. Stories portrayed in One Thinks of it All as a Dream – such as Syd applying an entire tub of Brylcreem before a performance, which the stage lighting caused to melt down his face as the band performed – are often perceived to demonstrate his increasing struggles to cope with daily life and regular activities.

Drugs and mental health have a strained relationship. The National Bureau of Economic Research notes that many people suffering from mental health issues often use substances as a crutch for their issues, despite the fact that it does not resolve their problem, only masks its effects. It states that: ‘The most common issue connecting mental illness and substance abuse is the intention of patients to medicate the mental health symptoms that they find disruptive or uncomfortable by using alcohol and drugs.’

The Calm Clinic warns that it is not just illegal substances which can trigger mental health symptoms, and research has shown that everyday stimulants, such as nicotine and caffeine, can have a negative impact on anxiety sufferers: ‘Studies have shown time and time again that the idea that smoking reduces anxiety is a myth. Many people smoke in order to cope with life, but studies have shown that smoking actually increases anxiety – it simply does so after the cigarette's effects have worn off.’

Alcohol is another legal substance commonly used in day to day life, but unfortunately people who experience mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety attacks, can often turn to alcohol as a short term solution. Drinkaware, a UK-wide alcohol education charity, notes that: ‘People who experience anxiety or depression are twice as likely to be heavy or problem drinkers.’ Alcohol, despite being a depressant, can often elevate mood and mute symptoms of anxiety in the short term. However, people who self-medicate with this form of treatment can get trapped in a vicious cycle and end up with two issues instead of one.

Alcohol can have negative consequences for people suffering from anxiety and depression, as many will know, with symptoms often becoming worse after a big night out. There is also evidence that alcohol abuse can sometimes be the root cause of depression, in addition to the physical damage it can do to your body. Drinkaware say that: ‘While a glass of wine after a hard day might help you relax, in the long run it can contribute to feelings of depression and anxiety and make stress harder to deal with. This is because regular, heavy drinking interferes with neurotransmitters in our brains that are needed for good mental health.’

Many doctors prescribe antidepressants to combat a variety of mental health issues, which can have good results. Mental Health Daily states that: ‘A considerable number of people get benefit from antidepressant medication and without them, they wouldn’t be able to hold down a job or maintain a social life.’ However, it also says that, in many patients, the body adapts to these drugs over time, and goes on to say that people taking the medication can become psychologically and physically dependant on them. This is just one of the potential side effects alongside dry mouth, weight gain and loss of libido.

While regularly prescribed to patients with mental health issues, some experts, such as Professor Peter Gotzsche disagree with their benefits. Gotzche believes, somewhat controversially, that long term use of psychotropic drugs, including anti-depressants, is ‘immensely harmful’, while other experts argue over the benefits of the drugs, considering their negative side effects for some patients and their ability to cover up an underlying issue within the psyche.

In an piece for The Guardian, Gotzche claims: ‘The problem is that many of these drugs simply do not work as people suppose. The main effect of antidepressants is not the reduction of depressive symptoms. They are no better than placebo for mild depression, only slightly better for moderate depression, and benefit only one out of 10 with severe depression. In around half of all patients, they cause sexual disturbances. The symptoms include decreased libido, delayed orgasm or ejaculation, no orgasm or ejaculation and erectile dysfunction. Studies in both humans and animals suggest that these effects may persist long after the drug has been discontinued.’

However, others such as Allan Young, Professor of Psychological Medicine at Kings College London, who has struggled with bouts of depression and anxiety himself, provide a counterpoint. Young said that he found ‘a combination of medication and therapy’ effective in his treatment, stating that: ‘Depression is such a huge category of illness – there are multiple types, and each type responds differently.’ Ian Anderson, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Manchester, agrees, stating that: ‘Antidepressants are part of a doctor's toolbox, though probably most useful for the most depressed; some people don't take to talking therapies; it's not an either/or situation.’

Barrett’s drug of choice was LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), a strong hallucinogen, particularly popular in the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s. The drug has been linked to the initiation of previously unnoticed or latent mental health issues. LSD and similar drugs cause altered perspectives on reality and visual hallucinations, which may reoccur even after the drug is out of the system and are linked with serious and severe mental health implications. The uncertainty and confusion caused by long term effects can cause extreme distress, anxiety and psychosis, according to drug information charity Frank: ‘LSD could have serious, longer-term implications for somebody who has a history of mental health problems. It may also be responsible for setting off a mental health problem that had previously gone unnoticed.’

However, this is in contrast to the study released earlier this year in the Psychological Medicine Journal, which found that the ingestion of psychedelic drugs can ‘bring on psychosis like symptoms – yet improve psychological wellbeing in the mid to long term’. The study was undertaken with 20 volunteers, who were each given a 75 microgram dosage of LSD intravenously. They were then put through a series of tests, which were repeated a fortnight later. In this study: ‘Increased optimism and trait openness were observed two weeks after LSD and there were no changes in delusional thinking.’

It will never be known whether Barrett’s drug consumption was the root cause of his deterioration in mental health, however it almost certainly played a part. Julian Palacios, author of Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd: Dark Globe, believes there was a long list of ‘LSD-aided psychotic breakdowns’ during Barrett’s era in the music industry, including Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac and Chris ‘Ace’ Kefford of The Move, who ‘spent decades recovering in mental homes’ after overdosing on the drug.

It is only in recent years that people have started talking more frequently and openly about mental health and the trials and tribulations associated with it, meaning that Barrett and others from his generation were never formally diagnosed as having mental health issues, let alone given adequate treatment. 

But unfortunately causes, coping strategies and things to avoid are often still not being given enough attention and priority. NHS waiting times for effective treatments, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, are between three and six months, while private sessions cost from £60 to £100 an hour. Though you may not be aware of it, there are other ways to help you cope with issues causing suffering. 

You can find a range of help, resources and advice on the Getting Help page on the Mental Health Foundation website. 

by Matt Shields

One of the final events in this year’s Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival was a performance from Scottish comedian Gary Little. Known as a master storyteller, Gary is a regular headliner at many of the top comedy clubs in the UK. The show, accurately titled, A Little Bit of Personal, took place on Halloween at Glasgows The Stand.

Gary has that distinct ability all good comedians seem to have, being able to take seemingly mundane everyday experiences and turn them into something undeniably hilarious. However, mental health is something comedians often struggle to talk about, or to talk about without causing offence, but Gary managed to have the audience bent over laughing, even while relating his performance back to mental health and the festival’s themes.

Gary organised his performance around his own past and personal experiences with depression. He described the reactions of his friends and work colleagues, who encouraged him to “find a hobby”. Gary continued to talk about his own desperation and vulnerability, relating the events that followed his decision to take up his friend’s suggestion of going hillwalking as a way to make himself feel better.

Although Gary performed his stories in a way that had the audience crying with laughter from the start, the show was a great display of the different ways individuals deal with and work through depression. In a sense, the use of comedy and wellbeing were interconnected throughout the evening, and the atmosphere in The Stand was a reminder of the healing power of laughter, good company and having someone there to talk to. On the other hand, Gary’s discussion of hill-walking, although it seemed like just a motif in his performance, highlighted that getting out there and doing something you wouldn't always do can have a therapeutic effect in itself.

Towards the end of the performance, Gary told the story of a community help group he attended, where he experimented with dancing as a tool for healing. Gary demonstrated his work from Angie’s Abba Class, with the words to Abba’s most famous songs running through. The audience, by this point, were crying with laughter, but again this was a reminder of the way in which different people deal with mental illness. He said that “not everyone has an Angie”, suggesting that we all have a responsibility to help those around us who are in a position where they need a friend.

Gary’s show unarguably helped to shed some light on the stigma surrounding mental health, and the way that, although many of us are suffering from the same issues, we choose to hide it. Gary’s courage to stand up on stage and tell his own story was an extremely admirable act. After Gary was held on stage for one last routine by the audience’s demand for an encore, he headed to the bar to interact with everyone who came, furthering the sense of the power of community and connection in times of personal struggle.

by Taylor Gardner


Presented by Glasgow International Comedy Festival, Gary Little's A Little Bit of Personal tour continues until Thursday 8 December, with Scottish dates listed below. For full details and to book tickets online, click here. You can also read Talking Heads reporter Anne Austin's interview with Gary here.  

Sunday 13 November | Gardyne Theatre, Gardyne Road, Dundee DD5 1NY | 01382 434 940

Friday 18 November | Platform, 1000 Westerhouse Road, Glasgow G34 9JW | 0141 276 9696

Wednesday 30 November | The Stand, 5 York Place, Edinburgh EH1 3EB | 0131 558 7272

Thursday 8 December |The Tolbooth, Jail Wynd, Stirling FK8 1DE | Book Online

Talking Heads reporter Andrew Revill attended the Big Peace and Jam at Recovery Fest in Renfrewshire, taking photographs, recording performances and even taking the opportunity to join in himself. 

As an amateur guitar player, I attended this jam with Paisley Guitar Club and the Buddy Beat with not a little bit of nervousness about my standard of playing in comparison to the talent that was performing at the Sunshine Recovery Cafe.

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The Paisley based guitar group kicked things off with a few songs played together on acoustic guitar, before the Buddy Beat took up centre stage with a few drumlines that encouraged the whole audience to get involved. The session was then given that extra bit of class by a local solo guitarist and singer.

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With such a display of talent on show, I was afraid I was going to find it difficult to engage with the group when it came time for the Big Jam. What right did I, a self-taught amateur, have to stand up, plug in and play along with people who clearly knew what they were doing? Moreover, how was I going to keep up with them? What if they played in a key I didn't know, with chords I didn't know? What if I played a wrong note and wrecked it for everyone?

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Well, after dodging around at the back gathering some photographs and hitting record on my Dictaphone to gather some evidence that I had at least been along and watched, I am pleased to say that I did in fact summon up the courage and gave it a try.

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I was helped in no small part by the general atmosphere of friendliness that enveloped the entire session. Every person in the Recovery Cafe that morning – whether they were a musician there for the Big Peace and Jam, busily making bacon rolls to dish out to the gathering audience, or a member of the audience themselves – made the event feel relaxed and fun.

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So, enough talk from me. Here is some audio cut together of the different musical styles on offer, ending with the Big Jam with us all pitching in, myself gladly included.  

by Andrew Revill


Find out more about the Talking Heads project here

Self-harm is something which everyone knows about, but, due to the suffocating taboo surrounding it, people rarely understand it. As society generally brims with people not questioning, or, more importantly, not wishing to question, this serious and widespread issue, the immensity of the problem only grows. So why then, at this year’s Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival, was an evening of performance based around self-harm able to bring joy to all present?

Performed at Stereo in Glasgow, Out of Harm brought together four participants, confident enough to share their stories with a room of strangers, a startlingly brave endeavour for anyone, particularly when coupled with the creativity and genius they displayed as they shared their own written pieces.

Arriving at the event, I was admittedly somewhat nervous and unsure about what to expect.  But all nerves were torn out from the instant that the first performance began, as I and the whole room were drawn in. From poetry to photography to acting, it brought shock, honesty and laughter out of everyone, in both an intense and wonderful display.

What was particularly notable was how, through the deliberately varied mood of the performance, entertainment managed to stay at the foreground, even as the importance and weight of the topic never lifted.

The biggest question that the entire event posed was how this difficult subject, which is so feared by society today, could bring such consistent joy and entertainment to a company of strangers. The most important point the project is trying to get across is that we, as a society, should be talking about self-harm, and ultimately need to be talking about self-harm and making clear the facts about self-harm.

Managing so successfully to use this topic to talk to, educate and entertain a room of people highlights the modern day difficulty we usually have in addressing and understanding the subject. The greatest harm being dealt to the subject is the silence of society, which indirectly silences those with experience of it. The topic needs not to be silenced but opened, so that those suffering can also open up.

The potential brought out in these performers’ shows how this topic need not always be treated in a negative way. Instead, it can be used as a platform for us to recover, with the confidence in and help from one another to bring out the best in who we are.

The great education and entertainment that this event has brought to me, as an outsider, is something that I’ve not just enjoyed, but have to feel very grateful for. It has further taught me that to share this feeling with others, both to positively alter the image of self-harm today and to benefit other people’s educated views on the subject, may be a far easier and more harmless task than first thought.

by Callum McLean


Click here to read Talking Heads reporter Susan McKinstery's article on the other Out of Harm event at the Glad Cafe, or visit the Facebook page to find out more about the project. 

Into Film is a UK wide organisation, supported by the BFI through Lottery funds, which helps educators to achieve effective learning outcomes in their use of film. Its programme includes free access to thousands of classic and popular films, curriculum-linked and enrichment teaching resources, filmmaking opportunities, educator training, a free cinema based youth film festival and annual awards. They offer a host of films and resources for using film to support positive well-being, and films are available free to all schools with an Into Film Club. Find out more here.

Our film curator, Richard Warden, recently spoke to Into Film as part of their 'Using Film to Teach' strand: 

"10% of children and young people (aged 5-16 years) have a clinically diagnosable mental problem, yet 70% of children and adolescents who experience mental health problems have not had appropriate interventions at a sufficiently early age. At the Mental Health Foundation we view our job with young people as two-fold: to support them with a wide range of long term and short term mental health problems and equally importantly to encourage positive mental health and well-being so that problems are less likely to develop.

"As Film Lead for the Mental Health Foundation and Film Curator for the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, I have witnessed first-hand the valuable role that film can play in supporting both aspects of this work. Film starts a conversation in a way that few other media can do; it encourages people to talk about issues they may feel uncomfortable with and evokes a response without having to dig. We're using resources like Mindreel, an online selection of films which have been submitted to our Festival since its inception in 2007 and can be used in different ways to explore a wide range of mental health issues. These are films which might not otherwise be widely seen but which contain valuable messages."

You can read the full article here