We Are Not The Problem

June 2023.

“God, don’t save the king, save the NHS. Save the people at breaking point, waiting years for an appointment, to be told they aren’t ‘mental enough,’” sings Sophia, whilst her twin Bella thrashes the guitar. 

In the year of 2023 – the very same year that some old white man had a very posh party and was given a fuck tonne of money, land, stolen jewels and a throne – it seemed perfectly reasonable to ask God (whatever or whoever that might mean to you) to save our essential provision of healthcare over aforementioned sausage fingers.

Call me radical if you want, if that makes me one I am down for that. Particularly for young people who are struggling with their mental health. 

Sophia and Bella are two young artists from a project called Balmy Army. They were singing this song as part of a rally of young people who had just marched through Manchester city centre, passing through the hallowed ground of St Peter’s Field (now St Peter’s Square), site of the Peterloo massacre. 

The march, an action of the Balmy Army, was led by around 80 young people who were pissed off about the shitshow of mental health care, a thing so shit and epic it could be seen from space. 

You don’t see many marches for mental health; it isn’t a thing that fits into the expected forms of mental health activism. You may expect a petition or a social media post. Maybe an individual sat on a daytime TV sofa, brave enough to share their struggles and call for better funding before adverts for loo cleaner. But for this group of young people, all ravaged by the shitness of CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) and the education system, collective acting and collectively cry out: we are not the problem.

(massively empowering themselves and each other in the process)

With banners like…

‘maybe just listen to me?’

‘are you mentally unstable?’

‘Rishi get your shit together..’

and

‘hey Manchester Evening News, stop using our trauma as click-bait’

Well…

Something is going on here……

So let me throw you three questions….

How did this come about?

How was this possible?

And what is it doing?

Well, to answer how the Balmy Army came about we can flick back through the pages of time, all the way to 2018. 

In 2018, I was working in the children’s mental health ward at Great Ormond Street Hospital. The ward is for young people aged 8 to 12 who are experiencing very complex mental health stuff. Often their mental health impacts how their bodies function, leaving them unable to walk or eat – stuff like that. It’s profound. 

Over six months, we took the young people living there on a journey, inviting them to re-imagine what their mental health ward should be like. They could do anything they wanted, regardless of money or the laws of physics. 

Every week, we hung out in a little studio space we had made and got to know each other. We began to explore themes, smells, and experiences, and mostly it’s good vibes. We began to think about sharing something at the end, as we had this invitation to share something in the new permanent show at Wellcome Collection. 

As we chatted about this, we figured out that actually, most of the children had never been to an art gallery before. It felt important that they get a sense of what those mythical, beautiful, problematic and strange places are like before exhibiting in one. So, we took them to the biggest cathedral to art… Tate Modern. 

The trip all went fine and we had an ok time. They were both impressed and unimpressed. Which seems like most of us are when experiencing art galleries (and how they present art).

Eventually, we got in the taxis to go home, and very quickly hit gridlock traffic. After 15 mins of not moving, the children started to get stressed. Those of them on feeding tubes have batteries that flash low power warnings and and and… it’s not great.

So I got on your worldwide internet, on Space Karen’s Twitter, and saw hashtag ClimateStrike trending. I clicked through and saw young people across London had walked out of school and taken to Parliament and 10 Downing Street to express their fear and concern over the climate crisis created by the likes of BP, Shell and John Brown (not the abolitionist, the ex-head of BP, y’know the guy that funds the Turner Prize). 

I asked the young people in the taxi, how did they feel about this? The protest was obviously impacting them unintentionally, but it was also something that is important to them. When you are 9 or 10 or 11 and in the middle of a hardcore mental health crisis, have you got the spoons to even think about what the climate crisis is going to do to everyone and everything’s future? 

And then one of the children said the golden and obvious thing, the kind of thing that is one of the reasons I like working with children and young people:

‘James, where are the protests for young people’s mental health?’

Obviously, they were right. 

Why aren’t we kicking off about the state of young people’s mental health support and care in the same way we do about other huge, cataclysmic failures?

How bad does it have to get?

(can it get any worse?)

((Covid made it worse))

(((George Osborne made it worse)))

((((This is the bit in the story where I drop some stats to give you the context and back up the claims I’m making about young people’s mental health, but thanks to your world wide interweb you can do your own research – just remember sitting on the loo watching Plandemic 3 isn’t actually research, that is just shitting from your arse into your own brain.)))) 

Anyway. 

I didn’t have an answer for this child. I had to be honest with them, and I think it’s always ok to say to a child that you don’t know, but that their question and concern is both valid and important. That it is something we can consider together. 

It sits with me, that question. It provokes me, gets under my skin. 

Questions:

Why are we being so passive about the state of mental health care?

Why aren’t the young people that are being failed protesting?

What would that form of activism look like, smell like, sound like?

How can some of the most impacted disabled young people and children protest? 

What would that form of activism look like?

How do you take to the streets when you can’t get out of the house?

How do you build a movement when many of the movement’s members are socially anxious?

How do we build the scaffolding around disabled young people to form their own forms of activism?

What is this model of organising like?

How do you do this in the face of a right wing government that doesn’t give a fuck about young people, and hasn’t given a fuck about them for 13 years? Actually, let me rephrase that. Not a government that doesn’t t give a fuck about young people… a government that is actively working to undermine them. 

Let’s not underplay that.

Being the kind of person that likes an impossible challenge, let’s go. 

Cue Balmy Army….. This was our original call to action:

Ever been told to ask for help only to be told help wasn’t available?

Ever been told you’ve got a problem, but something inside you says, hmmm, am not quite sure it’s JUST me? 

Ever get the feeling young people’s mental health care could be so much better? 

Enough excuses. We aren’t the problem.

The Balmy Army is an art, activism and mutual care project for pissed off people. 

For young people struggling with your mental health, your friends and families, and those working in mental health who are on your side.  Our aim is to work together across Greater Manchester to imagine and make real a simpler, kinder, easier to access mental health support and care, that Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services are currently prevented from doing.

Begun in 2022 young people, artists, madpride organisers, radical dreamers, disability justice inspired doers and everyone else trying to cope have come together. What do they want? Mental health support that works. When do they want it? About 15 years ago…

From sharing poetry to making placards, to social media takeovers and mass acts of civil disobedience, Balmy Army made an action lab during Manchester International Festival where anything (safe) could happen. It was a space for the Balmy Army to play, plan protests, give performances and even print ‘madidas’ t-shirts.

During the festival there was a series of events you could get involved in, and an exhibition you could visit.

Over a year, we met more than 80 young people who contributed to the Army of Balmy. We met them at a community mental health space; a social project for disabled and care experienced young people; a theatre; a mental health hospital; through a community mental health project… blah blah blah…

Anyway that vision – that was mapped out in the original call out – of young people taking to the streets, making art, poetry, performance, interventions, and co-creating a three month exhibition with a whole space designed for their needs… yeah, it all happened. 

The thing of interest is how?

How was this possible?

First and foremost, Balmy Army was a team effort. It took facilitators, a designer, bad ass producers, 38 kgs of double cream Oreos and about £4000 worth of taxis. When I say “we” I mean all those people and supporters and then some. 

We started by co-creating the boundaries for the sessions on a big piece of vinyl on the floor (not to contain or limit each other artistically, but to care mutually), a kind of group agreement, and we read it out each session. 

We spent a lot of time doing access check-ins, which means finding out what is going on for the young people, how they are, and what is going on in their lives. Asking questions like: ‘If your feelings today were a cat, what would that cat look like? Can you draw that for me?’ or ‘how is the weather in your head?’’ (weather in your head came from artist Becky Warnock).

We were working towards models of mutual care, leadership, accountability and learning – so trying to get things right, making mistakes, being accountable to each other and seeing call out culture as a chance to get better at what we do. What we really wanted to do was create horizontal models of care where we all support each other, spending a lot of time getting to know the young people. which just means: 

  • hanging out, chatting shit, being silly. 
  • paying them the living wage for their labour, in cash, at the end of each session. 
  • always providing a lot of double cream Oreos, because they’re vegan, tasty and the foundation of all modern revolutions. 
  • working in a way that isn’t extractive. A lot of social practice is, but we tried to make relationships that benefit everyone. Art can be a space to speak, be believed, to hurt, to be vulnerable yet safe, to share what happened to you, who hurt you and play out revenge fantasy.
  • Acknowleding harm; when young people talk about being harmed by the NHS/education system, even when it is trying to provide learning and treatment, it’s important that we acknowledge that, validate that, and listen to them. 
  • Focusing on resisting not pathologising through diagnosis, but also not dismissing what young people can find useful within diagnostic frameworks (being clear that we are in opposition to the mental health industry, not in support of it).Saying it like it is. (From the experience of those who are impacted). So this isn’t theatre, make fake world or a representation of a thing by an artist like a painting). We are explicit in the lived reality of young people.
  • Beginning from a place of lived experience – most if not all of the team working on this project were mental health disabled.
  • Working towards structural change, and not setting out trying to fix individual people’s problems. However, that process itself can often be of therapeutic value to people, because we heal through collective healing. (we did also do a lot of work to support individuals – like, a lot of work – shout out to Lucy and Lisa).

Punching upwards is liberating, there is joy in resistance and it’s ok to be silly – in fact it is an essential part of the work. Ripping the piss is good, but so is saying “I can’t handle that today.”

Access includes feeding young people who haven’t eaten, taxis to get to and from sessions, having a therapist in the space, stimming toys, light levels, sound levels, thinking about documentation and what is and isn’t shared online. It is really complex and always changing. 

These are some of the things, tools if you like, that we used to support the young people to get from the beginning to the end of the process.

So, what is the ending? The nice little thing that brings it all together and gives you hope? Aka addressing the question ‘And what is it doing?’

I hate this question. How do you measure something like this? But let’s try. 

We got an email from a carer to one of the young people in Balmy Army. It said (and obvs i’ve changed it a bit here): “My young person was very actively suicidal before getting involved with Balmy Army, but now they are excited to go to sessions, almost like they have some kind of spark.”

There are countless other undocumented ways the young people are sharing with us how much Balmy Amry means to them, and that is great. 

Have we had an official apology from the NHS and health minister to all young people for the violence of care that has been provided or been denied?

No.

Has there been a massive increase in funding for disabled led models of mental health liberation that centres global majority, trans, queer, neurodivergent, working class, benefits class, migrant etc young people?

No. 

But, to be fair to myself (and the young people), we are talking about generational change here. The violent systems of mental health ableism have been around for a long time. Overcoming them is a long thing. 

But has the work begun?

Well, it began well before us, and we are happy to build on that, pick it up, remix, change, modify, and shift it when it doesn’t work, and we (I) make mistakes. 

We can look back at Peterloo, sure in the moment it was something minging, but now we acknowledge it was a point in the journey to voting rights. A step towards universal suffrage.

Measuring impact in the moment may be something that bean counters do, but as activists we’re in it for the long game. And we know we can only be measured by time. We accept it may fail, but that’s ok, because art is allowed to.

So I’ll write the end bit of this story later, once we know, or ask one of the children of one of the young people to do that once they know. 

James Leadbitter, aka the vacuum cleaner, is a UK-based artist and activist who makes work drawing on his own experience of mental health disability, and inspired by Mad Pride, grassroots organising, direct action, deep ecology and disability justice. Over the last ten years he has focused on working with large groups including young people, health professionals and vulnerable adults to challenge and change how mental health is understood, treated and experienced.

This written provocation was commissioned by the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival as part of our Performing Anxiety project exploring good practice in making creative work about mental health.