The Mental Health Arts Network is an idea that has been developing for some time. Now, with support from the Baring Foundation, the Mental Health Foundation is teaming up with See Me, Scotland’s national programme to end mental health stigma and discrimination, to explore what form it might take.

At 10.30am on Wed 19 May, SMHAF associate artist Emma Jayne Park will host Gathering for Gatherers, the culmination of a month-long remote residency in which Emma will bring together creative people whose work is focused on gathering. The idea is to discuss different ways of belonging, sharing and being in a community – following a year in which we have all had to learn to gather in new and unfamiliar ways.

Then, at 1.30pm, Emma, the Mental Health Foundation and See Me will co-host Towards a Mental Health Arts Network, 90 minutes of provocations and discussions that will explore how we best support the needs and wants of our community.

Everyone with an interest in the arts and mental health is warmly invited to join both events.

There are now numerous individual artists and organisations across the UK who are making creative work that explicitly addresses mental health – as highlighted in the Baring Foundation’s 2020 report, Creatively Minded. And for the past 15 years the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival has brought together thousands of people who work in the worlds of arts and mental health.

What is still lacking, though, is a co-ordinated support network for this broad but like-minded community. We believe that such a network would benefit not just artists (whether they class themselves as professional, novice or hobbyist) but audiences, project participants, community groups, mental health campaigners, venues and other event programmers, and health organisations who want to run participatory art projects. See Me has a particular interest in supporting participatory art with a mental health theme and refining research into challenging stigma in audiences through arts-based projects.

The network will draw on – and hopefully expand – SMHAF’s existing regional networks in Scotland but with the potential to expand UK-wide and internationally.

The past few years have seen a conspicuous increase in the number of people, across various creative disciplines, explicitly addressing mental health issues in their work. It’s a big enough trend to have generated global media coverage, particularly during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where the Mental Health Foundation has been presenting an annual Mental Health Fringe Award since 2017.

This development reflects a welcome reduction in stigma about mental health – anxiety and depression in particular, but increasingly bipolar disorder and psychosis too – but this new openness about sharing often traumatic mental health stories in public has also created new issues, to do with best practice, safeguarding, informed consent, and protecting the welfare of participants.

In recent years the Mental Health Foundation has frequently been contacted by people working in the arts who are looking for advice on how to address mental health issues in their work. But it is often the case that it is artists themselves who learn, from their own experience, good practice methods that they are then able to share with others.

The Mental Health Foundation has repeatedly found that bringing together creative people who are explicitly addressing mental health can create numerous opportunities for learning. These include:

  • Peer support for those creating work that presents mental health challenges both for themselves and their audiences/participants.
  • The sharing of good practice, for the benefit of artists, audiences and organisations commissioning, programming or hosting the work, who do not always understand the impact that work explicitly addressing mental health issues can have on audiences, participants and the artists themselves.
  • The opportunity for research into the work’s impact on audiences and artists
  • The opportunity to create guidance on effectively challenging mental health stigma and discrimination through art
  • The building and sharing of knowledge
  • The ability to effectively match artists with mental health-focused projects that would benefit from their creativity, insight and individual skill-sets

It is important to note that, while there has been a reduction in mental health stigma in recent years, it remains particularly prevalent for particular communities who face marginalisation. We know that for any Mental Health Arts Network to truly support its members, it needs to be a space for cultural exchange and finding solidarity across the many different communities who are impacted by mental health stigma. Therefore we want to place a particular emphasis on co-creating art, events and networking spaces that are safe and welcoming for those who have traditionally been excluded.

In October 2020, the Mental Health Foundation and See Me co-hosted an event to launch the research paper ‘Using the arts to challenge mental health stigma’ and to facilitate an early discussion about the network idea. The event was attended by a mix of artists, community participants and voluntary sector organisations from across Scotland, and the response indicated a huge enthusiasm for the proposal which appeared to meet a real need for the participants.

It is important for any network that it is created from the ground up, with everyone involved feeling as if they have a voice – so we want to know what YOU think the network should do. Some of the ideas we hope to explore over the next year include:

  • A series of live discussion events and seminars with guest speakers from across the UK who are doing innovative work in this field, as artists, commissioners and community organisations.
  • Peer-to-peer support
  • A targeted promotion of the network to groups and individuals belonging to communities and identity groups where mental health stigma is prevalent.
  • The building of a comprehensive database of mental health arts activity in Scotland and across the UK, as a one-stop information resource.
  • The establishment of online discussion groups to share knowledge, resources, and opportunities, summarised in a regular newsletter.

Our longer-term aspirations for the network include:

  • A conference as part of SMHAF 2022
  • The establishment of training programmes empowering practitioners to lead peer support sessions and to work with vulnerable groups, with an emphasis on trauma informed practice in community settings.
  • A one-to-one mentorship programme bringing together people with experience of working on mental health arts projects and those aspiring to do so
  • Creativity labs to support the early development of new ideas and new work
  • An expansion of our new SMHAF Community Commissions programme – which is also funded by the Baring Foundation – with a particular focus on building a presence in marginalised communities.

Ultimately our vision is a multi-faceted network that brings together artists, mental health activists, community groups, the voluntary sector, and the health and social care sector, both to provide mutual support and to help develop new work. Scotland, where SMHAF already has a long and innovative track record of bringing together various communities of interest, is well placed to pilot such a project before it is expanded elsewhere.

Please join us on Wednesday 19 May, and throughout the year, and add your voice to the discussion.

Photo credt: Ingrid Mur.