The Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival had its first ever Youth Panel this year, inviting secondary school pupils to curate mental health themed arts events in their schools and influence youth-focused activity taking place in the wider festival programme. Developed with support from the Year of Young People 2018 Event Fund, the Youth Panel formed part of a larger strand of events designed to engage young people and explore their mental health concerns at SMHAF 2018.

The Youth Panel was created in January this year, when we recruited 14 pupils from three secondary schools – Clydebank High School, Trinity High School (Renfrew) and Lourdes Secondary School (Glasgow) – to take part. In our opening session, we gave them a taste of what the festival is all about, screening one of our award-winning short films and inviting Amy Conway to perform an excerpt from her interactive show Super Awesome World. Through games and discussion, we also explored what mental health meant to each of the participants, sharing positive, challenging ideas around stigma, support and wellbeing.

From that point on, we held a series of workshops to give the young people the skills they needed to organise their events, including sessions focusing on arts curation, film programming, marketing and digital journalism. Each workshop was led by partners and artists involved with the festival, including our Associate Artist Emma Jayne Park, designers Front Page, journalist Halina Rifai, and BBC Scotland’s The LAB, who supported participants to film their events and conduct interviews on camera. Working with the young people, we also identified spoken word artist Jenny Lindsay to perform at each event, and she visited each of the schools to plan a unique set.

A highlight of the Youth Panel involved giving the participants the opportunity to pick the winner of the Youth Perspective award at our prestigious International Film Awards. In a session led by Kirsty Gallacher and Yasmin Al-Hadithi from Into Film Scotland, the young people reviewed and discussed youth-focused short films submitted to the festival and curated a 30-minute programme to screen for their audiences. Struck by its commitment to raising awareness about mental health and how easy it was to relate to the subjects, the Youth Panel selected But Honey, You Look Fine to win the Youth Perspective award, a documentary by young Australian director Jennifer Leonforte about her best friend Gabby’s experiences with bulimia. It was fascinating to hear how everyone interpreted the films and the views put forward helped to shape the youth-focused films in our overall programme.

The Youth Panel events took place during the festival in May and they were each developed with their own unique character, reflecting the skills and personalities in each group. Clydebank High School’s #ThisIsMe was first up, an ambitious multi-arts event aiming to challenge stigma around young people’s mental health. Taking a hard-hitting approach, the participants screened two shorts films aimed at an older audience, developed a hugely impressive exhibition of photography and illustration, and designed T-shirts and postcards for those taking part. Alongside Jenny Lindsay, it was incredible to welcome Jennifer Leonforte to the school to speak about her film, having flown all the way from Australia for the International Film Awards the following evening! You can watch a short film the pupils made about the event, with support from BBC Scotland’s The LAB.

Participants from Lourdes Secondary School took a quite different approach, using their event – With Love, Teach and Care in Mind – as a platform to raise awareness about mental health among first and second year pupils, ahead of it being introduced into the curriculum. Their event featured a wide range of activities, including guided meditation, physical exercise, an introduction to the school’s counselling service, and music from former pupils Mandulu & Hephzibar, who spoke compellingly about how music helps their mental health, and went on to perform at Moving Minds in the main SMHAF programme.

Finally, Youth Panel members from Trinity High School curated Change Ur Mind, an event exploring wellbeing. Audiences had the opportunity to tour stalls, taking part in yoga, a smoothie bike and a collaborative mindfulness artwork, and finding out about local services that can help support mental health. Jenny Lindsay performed her own work, as well as Sunshine in a Puddle by young poet Iona Leigh, and spoke passionately about both her personal experiences with mental health and what young people can do to manage it.

It was a privilege working with all the members of the Youth Panel, who have shown their talent, honesty and commitment throughout this project. We have been greatly impressed with their awareness about mental health, and the ways in which they chose to explore the issues that were most meaningful to them. Each of the Youth Panel events was a real success and we are delighted that the participants’ hard work paid off. Given the project’s success and in light of rising concerns around young people’s mental health, we want to support more young people to contribute to SMHAF in the future.

Speaking about her experiences as part of the Youth Panel, Erin Kennedy from Clydebank High School said:

‘Working on the Youth Panel has expanded my perspective on mental health, I now understand that the term can’t be narrowed down to one thing and there are so many different aspects to it. Through workshops, working alongside other young people, I got to not only share my experience with mental health but to listen to and understand others’ experiences.

‘Being a part of the Youth Panel has been refreshing as I got to express my ideas and thoughts to a group of people who were open to listening to me, in an environment where I didn’t feel judged or uncomfortable and was free to be creative.’