The inaugural SMHAFF Writing Awards were a celebration of the power of words and the diversity of talent displayed by all those who entered the competition. Presented in collaboration with Bipolar Scotland, the ceremony took place in the Mitchell Library’s main exhibition hall and featured readings from each of the ten finalists’ pieces. 

Selected from a pool of over 130 entries, the shortlisted works were a mixture of personal accounts and fictional narratives, inspiring letters and well-crafted poetry. All the writers drew on their own experiences to some extent, showing imagination and courage in the way they presented their ideas and reflections. The theme for the competition, as for this year’s festival, was power, which inspired the writers in innumerable different ways. Whether their work was about empowerment or powerlessness, each of the finalists, in the words of judge Elizabeth Reeder, read ‘with poise and grace’ and the event was a great setting for them to showcase their writing.

The winning entry, Kris Holt’s ‘Crowning Glory’, is a short story that works through internal tension and the things that are left unsaid. It examines the power balance within a stagnant relationship, as well as exploring the current political climate and the effects poverty can have on mental health. It’s a story of taking back power in an unlikely situation, reaching the end of your tether and finding the strength to turn that into a catalyst for positive change. In the final paragraph, it says, ‘A hundred yards past the shop, I reach Smeaton’s Bridge. The river runs thick and fast like arterial blood.’ The imagery is suicidal, representing the protagonist’s ultimate break with her former life. However, she keeps on walking, towards a future that’s uncertain but full of hope.

Holt was unable to attend the award ceremony but sent over a statement that expressed how much it meant to win. ‘Like many other people,’ he said, ‘I’ve experienced mental health issues in my daily life…I’ve seen first-hand how important it is that people receive swift and appropriate support and I know that most of them who have such support can have a significant quality of life. I’m proud to be part of an event promoting positive health and wellbeing.’

The two highly commended entries emphasised the diversity of the competition, which accepted poetry, diary entries, blog posts and letters, as well as short fiction. Fiona Stirling’s story ‘Let’s Play Superheroes’ is a playful allegory about disillusionment and social pressure. Using a creative narrative, it highlights the idea that mental health problems don’t discriminate. No matter how much power someone appears to hold, they still have an element of vulnerability and it can be very difficult to know what might push them over the edge.

Contrastingly, Veronique Kootstra’s ‘Tug of War’ is a very personal piece, taking the form of a letter addressed to her mum who lives back home in the Netherlands. Speaking after the ceremony, Kootstra said that she mainly writes ‘short stories, flash fiction’ and that this piece was ‘quite difficult’ to write. This sentiment is reflected in her opening paragraph, which says:

‘You often ask me what I write and I tell you that I write stories. I make things up. I create characters that don’t exist outside my stories and place them in situations that I have come up with. Suddenly, that seems so much easier than writing this letter to you. This time my words have got a different purpose and meaning; they are personal, honest and charged with emotion. They are for you.’

In an introduction to her reading, Kootstra also spoke about how the theme of power inspired her to write the letter. ‘When I first saw the theme, I thought of two things. I thought of power struggle, especially between my mum and manic depression, [and] the power of memory. Not the darker ones, not the ones we just want to tuck away…but the memories that fill us with warmth and make us smile when we think back about them.’ 

Anais Durand’s short story ‘Blossom’ also draws a positive message from what could have been a very dark theme. After being diagnosed with a terminal illness, her protagonist decides to peacefully commit suicide. However, she uses her last week to reclaim her freedom and rediscover life’s intrinsic value. Durand was attracted to the ‘complexity’ of her story’s central themes and wanted to ‘draw parallels between physical and mental illnesses’. For her character, receiving the diagnosis was ‘like a tragic trigger’ but ‘suicide is not just the way out…It’s a way of affirming her power, making her decision.’ The way she goes about her final week ‘is life-affirming.’

21-year-old Durand was one of several shortlisted writers who were entering their work into a competition for the first time. She said, it was ‘a chance to combine my love of writing and…the inspiration of what’s in the mind.’ It forced her ‘to write…to actually be creative within a timeframe’, and it ‘was just a pleasure’ to be selected. Joanna McFarlane, one of two candidates shortlisted for poetry, wrote her piece several years ago and was convinced to enter it by her partner. ‘I’m really glad that she gave me the confidence to send it in,’ she said, ‘because I probably wouldn’t have otherwise done so. It was really nice to be part of it.’

Her poem, ‘White Coats’, is based on her own experience of mental health institutions and ‘it’s about giving away power to professionals and being lost in the psychiatric system.’ McFarlane is just one writer in the competition who uses technical skill to accentuate the power drawn from her personal context. She writes, ‘They are coming to free me from my prison; / shock me / with their peculiar brand of truth. / It goes like this: / I am a patient in a psychiatric hospital / and they are here to help me.’ 

Similarly, Kerry MacIver’s short story ‘The ECT Experience’ describes her traumatic time as a psychiatric patient. What comes across in the narrative is the total barrier between her protagonist and the doctors and nurses who are administering her treatment. ‘How barbaric,’ she writes at one point. ‘I can’t believe he does this day in, day out. It must get so boring after a while.’ The professionals in the story are largely distant and impersonal, unable and unwilling to see the effect the treatment is having. 

‘I read my medical notes a few years ago,’ MacIver says, ‘and it was very interesting because my perception of what happened was very different from their perception. But back then, I was very ill and it was a much different time. I always felt it was them and us but I’ve learned a lot since then.’ She wrote the piece two years ago and her work is now having a direct impact on how ECT treatment is delivered. It’s ‘being used in training for ECT doctors and nurses, because there’s a lot of things they don’t know – patients don’t tell doctors everything. So, I’m glad that something good has come out of it.’

The fact that so many of the entries are rooted in direct personal experience is the main thing that separates the SMHAFF Writing Awards from other writing competitions. Each of the judges emphasised the inspiration they took from every entry and how difficult it was to select the winners. Gordon Johnston, Chair of Bipolar Scotland, said, ‘What these entries brought home to me is the power of words…As readers and judges, there were moments when we laughed at some of the entries…were horrified at some of the personal stories [and] angry at some of the things that people have been forced to go through. But, [we were] always affected by the writer who had reached into themselves and used their own experiences to create something.’ 

Writing can also be an extremely powerful tool for helping people manage and recover from their mental health conditions. Johnston described two ways that writing has made a real difference to the people he’s worked with. ‘Firstly…the more they know about their condition, the more they get to know about themselves, the more they can do to stay well. And also, there’s the power of sharing…When you have a mental illness, it can be very lonely…and sometimes there’s power in just feeling that other people are suffering in the same way and other people react in the same way. It gives you that shared understanding.’

Hazel Christie, whose shortlisted entry ‘Just Talking’ explores her encounter with ‘psychotherapy’s invisible boundaries’, has only recently taken up creative writing. But, already she’s finding that it’s having an impact on her life. ‘I started to do some more creative writing five or six months ago and joined a creative writing group…I’ve found it a really therapeutic experience actually. It has given me a different way to explore some of the issues that are bothering me…without needing someone to talk to…It [gives] me the space to look back and say I was in an incredibly bad place and look how far I have come…In some ways, it’s a space of recovery. Writing is a space of recovery for me.’

Written by Rob Dickie