When the Coronavirus lockdown began, theatre-maker Skye Loneragan was advised that her family, being considered at high risk, should not leave the house at all.

The kindness of neighbours helped her through the isolation. One person brought her eggs, another potatoes, while friends sent children’s furniture, purple kinetic sand and an ice cream machine to help keep her three-year-old occupied. “The virus can create big bubbles of kindness between us,” she observes.

Film-maker Julian Triandafyllou experienced something similar. “My father passed away at the beginning of lockdown,” he says. “The many small kindnesses my family, friends and community were able to show each other made the grieving process much easier. In a way the lockdown has forced us to communicate more clearly with words, from the heart, to bridge the gap that it was creating physically.”

Kindness is the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week. As Mental Health Foundation chief executive Mark Rowland puts it, “we have chosen kindness because of its singular ability to unlock our shared humanity. Kindness strengthens relationships, develops community and deepens solidarity.”

The importance of all these things has been amplified by a lockdown that has physically separated families, friends, neighbours and communities in a way few of us have experienced before. We asked some of the participants in SMHAF’s online programme what kindness means to them, and the answers were illuminating.

While Skye Loneragan appreciated the kind gifts from neighbours and friends, she observes that kindness is not just about “paying it forward”. “It is also all those times someone steps onto a road to make space for my toddler and me on the pavement, all those times we stop or move aside to give someone else space.” She likens kindness, evocatively, to a “voltage” between people. “It gives me faith in how we can connect across distances and differences.”

“I think one of the common mistakes when thinking about kindness is that there always has to be self-sacrifice and no return for the giver,” says theatre-maker Amy Conway. “One of the biggest lessons I needed to learn about kindness is that it can and should ideally exist in a relationship of reciprocity. When we reach out to people and perform a kindness, we do so from a place of love and that innate desire for connection, and it is supposed to feel good. We don’t need to be showered with praise or given a standing ovation once a week (although obviously these are nice things), but simply the knowledge that we might have helped in some small way is enough.

“We often say, well you would have done the same thing for me. And we believe that to be true because these small interactions reinforce that belief: that we are held by our fellow human beings, that our kindness will come back to us, perhaps not through that particular person (this is not a transactional relationship), but eventually, because we all want to connect to others through kindness. And consequently, receiving that kindness, or good turn, humbly and gratefully, is a kindness in itself because you get to give that person the feeling that they are making a difference.”

Filmmaker Jonathan Harden emphasises the importance of kindness in our professional lives too. “The longer I’m in the arts, the more I try to make good work, the more I realise how hard it is,” he says. “To get a project started, let alone finished, is difficult enough. But to make something truly great is statistically virtually impossible. I certainly haven’t done it yet! With that in mind, I think we could all be gentler on each other’s work, and kinder with our comments, particularly about those we don’t know, on social media. Being constructive and encouraging, rather than cynical and critical, would make the arts a kinder place for us all.”

For film director Tim Barrow, “kindness is where we display the best of ourselves as a species. I value it more and more in art and artists. It's key to a successful working arena.” Documentary maker Rosie Baldwin thinks the arts world could be kinder “by opening up to a broader idea of what makes great art. Rather than focusing so much on skill and technique, I think we should be celebrating expression and honesty. I think that would open the doors up for a lot more people who can feel intimidated by the arts world and allow it to be more inclusive to different people and different ways of working.”

Filmmaker Steven Chatterton agrees. “When you hear a painting sold for so much or a film won all these awards, so what? It's like extracting the nutritional value out of a meal. This sense of value, of good/bad can intimidate people into never even taking the first steps into self-expression whereas the dream is they create art without inhibition. At its core, art is the unique expression of any individual's experience of life, through the filter of them, shared with the rest of us. To encourage that without judgement or valuation is such a gentle kindness, it says, ‘hey, your experience matters too,’ and we all need to hear that.

Many of our interviewees emphasised the importance of being kind to yourself. “In my pre-lockdown life, if I spent a day doing nothing, I would feel guilty about it,” says documentary maker Katherine Sweetman. “In this current climate, I have to allow myself personal days where I just do anything I want. This was a process.”

Steven Chatterton agrees. “Choosing to be kind to others doesn't take much but can make a huge difference to the recipient, we often just need to be reminded to make that choice. Being kind to ourselves though, that can be the hardest. Some people will spend their whole lives never once being kind to themselves. A creative practice can help you get in touch with yourself and be kinder to yourself. My driving force is to create work that encourages empathy and kindness, that in its own small way will contribute to a kinder world.”

Written by Andrew Eaton-Lewis, Arts Lead, Mental Health Foundation

Find out more about this weeks programme here.