“If the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival is a person, then the Dust of Everyday Life is its therapist.” That’s how Andrew Eaton-Lewis, arts lead for the Mental Health Foundation, introduced this year’s annual symposium on the arts, mental health and social justice, which took place at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow. If his analogy rings true, then it’s clear from the diverse and challenging conversations that took place throughout the day that the Festival, as it moves on from its landmark tenth year, has more on its mind than ever.
The Dust of Everyday Life was launched three years ago as an experiment, an opportunity to ask ourselves some challenging questions about the relationship between the arts and mental health, to interrogate the work we do as a Festival and find out how we can do things better. Bringing together artists, activists and people with lived experience from across Scotland and further afield, the symposium also creates a platform for us to explore and influence emerging arts projects, as well as discuss the issues that matter most to the people who engage with the Festival every year.
Something we felt was vital to talk about was the impact that the times we are living in are having on our mental health. The insecurity generated by our increasingly uncertain and fractured political, economic and cultural environment has left many of us struggling to maintain a grip on the world around us. This feeling was perfectly elucidated by theatre-maker Skye Loneragan, as she performed a preview of her new piece Though This Be Madness, which uses performance poetry and humour to challenge what we mean when we talk about madness and sanity, highlighting the irrationality that we perpetually encounter in our everyday lives.
The first panel discussion, Art in a Time of Anxiety, continued on this theme, focusing not just on the challenges that we’re currently facing as a society, but also on the way that technology is influencing the way that we deal with them. Writer, publisher and activist Kevin Williamson described how a combination of the mainstream media, ubiquitous advertising and constant connectivity have created a “mentally toxic environment” in which everything seems to be “accelerating” and we find it impossible to switch off. Social media is only making the problem worse, encouraging us to share our negativity and anxiety, through what poet Tawona Sithole described as a “contamination chain”. Playwright Lynda Radley also highlighted the pressure we’re always under to create “media friendly versions of ourselves”, a process that requires us to consciously adapt our personalities and lifestyles to meet certain cultural standards.
It’s clear that these factors are all having a complex effect on our mental health, but it’s something that we don’t yet fully understand or know how to adapt to. Technology is now so intrinsically tied into our everyday experiences that it influences everything, from mundane activities to the events that have the most lasting impact on our lives. In Living Well and Dying Well, theatre producer Stephanie Katie Hunter introduced her in-development project After Words, which interrogates how online technologies form part of “a modern day grieving process”. Working as part of emerging arts collective Turnt, she’s exploring issues ranging from the performative aspects of commemorating the dead online, to questions about who owns our digital afterlives and how we should communicate with them.
These issues are embedded in our attitudes to death more generally, and the session also focused on how changing our attitudes towards death could improve our mental health. “We will live better if we’re not afraid of death,” said Angie Dight, artistic director of Mischief La-Bas, as she discussed what inspired her to create the Festival of Ian Smith: A Celebration of Death, following her husband’s suicide in 2014. Established as a way to pay tribute to Smith’s life and art, the festival has evolved over time and is increasingly inspired by the way other cultures celebrate death. Dight criticised the negative attitudes we have towards death in this country, as they create a real sense of distance towards it and prevent us from dealing with it when it comes. Her sentiments were supported by audience members who spoke up to tell their own stories, describing how they have dealt with death positively in their cultures, through active participation and “mischievous” humour.
Cultural exchanges like these are one of the main benefits of hosting an event like this, so it was particularly valuable to hear a presentation from Dr Akeem Sule, the consultant psychiatrist who co-founded Hip Hop Psych. The Cambridge-based organisation uses hip hop lyrics for public mental health education, aiming to make psychotherapy “culturally relevant” to a demographic which traditionally struggles to engage with it. Sule’s fascinating talk explained how hip hop lyrics often refer to issues that are known to cause “vulnerability to mental health problems”, including “poverty, drugs and fractured families”. “Hip hop has always documented what happens on the streets, in urban culture,” he said; it addresses the challenges that people in these environments face, using a rich and unique language. Above all, the project highlights how important it is for psychiatrists to communicate with patients in a way that they can relate to, which ultimately requires greater diversity within the profession itself.
Music has always provided solace to people living with mental health issues, and the songs of Leonard Cohen, which often relate to his own experiences with depression, have touched countless people over the years. Following his recent death, we wanted to explore his legacy as an artist and the extent to which his widely publicised struggles with mental health influenced his work. Cohen is known to have inspired numerous artists, including musician Adele Bethel, who said during the discussion that his songs have acted as “therapy” for her chronic depression. Poet Sean Burns, who has shared a number of “strange parallel experiences” with Cohen in his own life, described him as someone who “embraced” the suffering he saw in the world, using the negatives to find the positives. But it’s clear that Cohen never felt his depression helped him to become a great artist; in one clip that was shown, he said: “Good work is produced in spite of suffering and as a victory over suffering,” not from suffering itself.
With that in mind, it’s vital that we ensure artists are supported when making work about mental health issues. During the session on personal documentaries, we heard about how the Scottish Documentary Institute supports filmmakers taking on these projects, helping them to remain mentally healthy, as well as make outstanding films. Flore Cosquer, commissioner and producer at SDI, spoke about the work they do to help filmmakers “handle the particular pressure” that comes with making personal documentaries. By running challenging workshops, they create a sense of critical and emotional distance, something that is extremely important because getting too close to the project “can be very affecting and very dangerous”.
The session also featured three filmmakers, Karen Guthrie (The Closer We Get), Lucie Rachel (Where We Are Now) and Theresa Moerman Ib (The Third Dad), who spoke about their experiences and the things that helped get them through it. Guthrie spoke about feeling an “instinctive compulsion” to make the film at the beginning, but if she’d known how it was going to turn out, it would have been “terrifying”. She felt more “alone in the responsibility” than on any other project she’d worked on, and remembers feeling “a terrible dead” at the start of editing that the film might offend her family in some way. The three filmmakers agreed that making a personal documentary is an extremely challenging process, but all have benefited hugely from the positive impact their work has had. Guthrie and Rachel spoke about how it’s substantially improved their relationships with their family, while Moerman Ib said that the responses she’s had from audiences have helped her understand and come to terms with her own experiences.
The Dust of Everyday Life is also an opportunity to find out how we can better support our audiences. We held two sessions to explore what we can do to address the Festival’s “paradox”: we run an expansive programme of arts events but our main audiences are the people who might find it most difficult to attend them. This raises hard questions, which we as organisers have to ask ourselves all the time. How far does our duty of care to our audiences extend, particularly when we know that many of them have lived experience with various kinds of trauma, anxiety and mental health issues? And how do we find the right balance, as Dr Simon Stuart said in A Conversation with Trigger Warnings, between “making it safe” for people and “being overprotective”?
In both that session and the Chill Out Corner Chat, the consensus that emerged wasn’t, unsurprisingly, on exactly what measures we should put in place, but rather on how we can help create an environment where people feel comfortable experiencing problems, knowing they will be dealt with appropriately and without judgement. Theatre director Jen McGregor, who experiences triggers due to complex PTSD, said that the focus needs to shift from “avoiding the triggers to dealing with them when they happen”. Stuart agreed, saying that we need to develop “a more flexible set of behaviours” to cope with these situations, which requires not only extensive training across the arts industry but a considerable shift in mentality.
Similarly, Fiona Couper said that from her experiences working with the National Autistic Society to develop autism friendly arts events, the main thing that people ask for is not getting the technical set up right for their condition, but simply having approachable, friendly staff, who they can trust to resolve any problems that come up.
Adventurer, author and speaker Paula McGuire agreed that there are challenges with being truly inclusive and meeting everybody’s needs straight away. She explained that, for about a decade, her severe anxiety would have prevented her from going to any arts venue, or even the city centre, no matter what anyone did to support her. Based on her experiences, she cautioned against overprotecting audiences, saying that people needed to trust themselves to go through difficult experiences and develop their own sense of risk. “I stopped trying to make life easier,” she said in Building a Social Movement in the Arts at the beginning of the day, “and started to make myself stronger instead.” While there’s certainly a need to create safe spaces, there’s no getting around the fact that the Festival will always explore challenging issues, and we want to keep giving artists and audiences the chance to do that.
The final session, Building a Social Movement in the Arts, focused on the vital role that the arts can play in instigating social change. Halina Rifai, a founding member of Glasgow-based women’s collective TYCI, described how the arts can inspire people to “move out of their comfort zones”, while dancer and theatre-maker Emma Jayne Park said that she wants to use her work to help audiences question their roles in society, “reframing the world we’re living in” and making it “a much more satisfying and curious place”. The discussion went on to focus on participatory arts, which are vital for opening doors for people to get interested in developing artistic skills. However, one audience member observed that there remains a “glass ceiling” for participation – people from all backgrounds are encouraged to participate up to a point, but are never given the chance to progress beyond that.
The discussion also returned to arts funding, an issue that was covered extensively in the opening session. Park echoed comments that Lynda Radley made earlier on, critiquing funding models that employ artists for short fixed periods of time, making it very difficult for them to get to know the communities they’re working in, let alone build anything resembling a legacy. There’s a sense too that artists are increasingly being forced into participatory practice, which is a requirement of much of the available funding, but we also need to ensure artists are able to make a living who want to make work for its own sake. In the opening session, Kevin Williamson said that “every penny spent” on the arts” is “going to be returned” in one form or another, in terms of social cohesion, education and improved mental health, but there’s still a reluctance to fund it. All too often, the willingness is only to fund projects which have clearly measureable impacts, something that is inherently difficult in the arts.
“The interesting thing about dust,” said Tawona Sithole in the opening session, “is that we don’t notice it” most of the time. It just sits there, coating the background of our lives, until we make an extra effort to seek it out and wash it away again. That’s why events like the Dust of Everyday Life are so important, as they give us an opportunity to explore some of the issues that affect us most deeply, but that we don’t often make time to deal with. The arts are one of the best tools we have to manage our dust, to stay mentally healthy, so we must do what we can ensure they remain central to our society.
by Rob Dickie
All sessions at the Dust of Everyday Life 2017 were recorded and are now available to listen to on our SoundCloud channel. Follow the link or listen to the playlist below: