It is imperative people feel able to talk about their mental health and that they are supported to access help. But what happens when you ask for help? What does that help look like in our mental health system? 

The ‘Changing Lives’ series gives a platform to stories, which respond to these questions in the context of lives changed from mental ill health and lengthy inpatient care at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital. 

Summerhall Café had a great turn out for the celebration of the third project, which includes a book, exhibition and film. The book pays respect to the memory of Ronnie Jack whose work and passion on the second book made the third possible. The project’s editor and development worker Katherine McMahon expressed how the themes of hope and solidarity illuminate this year’s publication, which is made up of prose, poetry, artwork, photography and transcribed interviews. 

Jo McFarlane’s readings to the audience touched upon the mixture of emotions people feel when being admitted to hospital and they emphasised the feeling of ‘relief in being taken seriously’. Their poem Illegitimi reveals that asking for help is not always well-received as the poem recounts being told: ‘Suicide isn’t a mental illness / You’re not a priority, none of our business.’ 

Once taken seriously, people with different backgrounds and experiences access help and care within an arguably one-size-fits-all medical model. The book showcases various reflections on this. Holly C. Behan in their piece My experience of Madness writes ‘a combination of crisis in Mental Health provision and understanding have life and death consequences’ and highlights that there is ‘a rigidity in the system unable to treat patients as individuals with very different needs.’ 

This is where the Patient’s Council has stepped in. This independent collective of patients and former patients of the hospital strives not simply to improve the mental health care system, but to challenge and transform it. 

The film produced by Peter E Ross is made up of interviews with former patients who have returned to living in the community. The contributors to the project do not shy away from sharing the unpalatable aspects of being in hospital, such as the monotony, the routines and the staff seeming to hold all knowledge and power. Yet, we do hear the positive aspects from having access to the grounds to the friendships made with other inpatients – often the only people who truly understand and relate to complex and chronic mental illness. 

The project also builds bridges between staff and service users by giving a platform to voices of mental health professionals and there is an insightful interview in the book with mental health nurse Merrick Pope. This feels especially optimistic when considering the potential of these conversations to influence the medical world to work more compassionately with people towards recovery and management of mental illness. The audience also heard a moving reading by peer worker Jodi, who works with the charity Penumbra, and they shared the positive outcomes which can be achieved through recognising ‘each person as an individual (not a diagnosis!)’ 

The ongoing success of the ‘Changing Lives’ project is testament to the necessity of these voices and stories in the fight for a mental health system which has the funding, capacity and holistic understanding to help individuals. Through the creative documenting of these stories, we are able to imagine the changes we want for the future whilst offering knowledge, hope and solidarity for the present. 

by Z Nugent


You can pick up a copy of the book Stories of Changing Lives 3 at Summerhall during Out of Sight, Out of Mind. The exhibition runs until Sun 29 Oct.