The Dust of Everyday Life was a pioneering conference designed to investigate the relationship between the arts, mental health, stigma and social justice.

Held at Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Arts and curated by the Mental Health Foundation, the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival and See Me, it was attended by 120 people, including artists, service users, activists, psychiatrists and critics. The open format and diverse perspectives prompted a day of informed, insightful and often passionate discussion, exploring the nuances and tensions inherent in the subject matter. There were no easy conclusions to be drawn but it left everyone involved with plenty to reflect upon.

The title can be interpreted in a number of ways but Judith Robertson, Programme Director at See Me, put it best when she said that “stigma and discrimination is the dust of everyday life”. It is this that needs to be washed away and the arts, dialogue and social action are the tools we have to achieve it. As Lee Knifton, Head of the Mental Health Foundation in Scotland said: “Stigma is not a medical process, It’s a social process,” an imaginative cultural construct that collectively we have the power to eradicate. Progress is being made in many areas, particularly where there is strong involvement from mental health charities, but there is still a lot of work to be done.

It remains difficult for people to find the confidence or the language to talk about mental health, a point that was emphasised by performance poet Jenny Lindsay in the opening session. Wearing a large plaster on her finger, she said she gets numerous questions from strangers about the injury but even people she knows well would never be comfortable enough to ask: “How is your depression and anxiety today?” Through the arts, however, people are more prepared to listen to what she has to say. The poem she performed at the conference laid bare the full spectrum of her experience, ranging from manic elation to disintegration and despair. But however dark it gets, there is always hope for recovery. The last lines read: “These days come and these days always, always go.”

Throughout the day, there were sessions on television, cinema, theatre, photography and writing, and a recurring theme in all the discussions was how these art forms represent mental health. It became clear that it is extremely difficult to authentically represent inner experience, whether it is your own or somebody else’s. In the discussion on the myth of the mad genius, documentary filmmaker Emma Davie spoke about the importance of recognising the ultimate “unknowableness” of the subject, while critic Hannah McGill put forward the idea that mental health issues might be better defined as mysteries than illnesses. By treating the subject of mental health with the complexity it deserves, we can move beyond reductive tropes and stereotypes towards a rich understanding of individuals and characters. We may even be able to reach a point where mental illness is not always the subject but simply part of a bigger picture. 

Problems surrounding consent and exploitation in media representations also cropped up in every session, leading to perceptive debates between the panellists and audience members. They can sometimes be presented as relatively black and white issues but here appeared considerably more complex. Artists must have the right to dramatise their subject matter – if not, can what they are doing be described as art? – but they also have a responsibility to ensure they represent their subjects authentically and receive appropriate consent for that they are doing. There were also no easy answers as to how “potentially triggering” scenes should be presented, given the implications both for the artwork and the people who see it. Is showing a graphic suicide authentic or irresponsible? Would suppressing it constitute censorship or social responsibility?

Hearing different perspectives on these difficult questions is useful for artists and organisations looking to produce new work or programme events. There were representatives from the Northern Irish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival in attendance, who put on their first festival in October last year, as well as groups from Wales and Spain, who are aiming to establish similar festivals in their respective countries. The conference also provided an informative space for academics and PhD students to carry out research and a platform for mental health charities to explain the work they are doing and the impact it is having.

Raising awareness about social justice and the importance of playing an active role in reducing stigma was also a key aim for the conference. Mental health is always a political issue, given the extent to which the society we live in affects our mental wellbeing. Furthermore, it can also affect our access to and experience of treatment, as well as potential for recovery. The concluding session, drawing inspiration from an earlier discussion about the Glasgow Girls and its dramatic reincarnations, tried to find a specific rallying cry for mental health activists. Members of the audience raised issues including the treatment of asylum seekers and mental health funding in the NHS, but there was also recognition that there is more we can do in our everyday lives. One woman said it had made her understand just how much “it matters how we treat people in everyday life,” while another said that there needs to be more emphasis on “promoting a sense of common humanity” in society, resisting being forced into an increasingly “individualised world”.

Perhaps, above all, The Dust of Everyday Life reinforced how vital it is for people to produce art and the profound effect it can have on their own and other people’s lives. While there have always been links between mental ill health and creativity, it is also clear that it is impossible for most people to achieve anything when at their lowest points. It is here where the link between the arts, mental health and social justice appears strongest, when they combine to give people the support and social structures they need to succeed. As transgender playwright Jo Clifford said in her message to the conference: “Art can turn even the biggest disasters into something of beauty and strength.” It is vital that transformation is allowed to happen.

Written by Rob Dickie