The theme for this year’s Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival is passion, and no two people could have more of it than storytelling duo Beth Hamilton-Cardus and Andrew Coull. Together, they comprise Fife-based community theatre company Suit and Pace. This year, they performed their comedic storytelling session Cheering Up The King, aimed at children aged 3-8 years old, in the Postings Arts Hub, Kirkcaldy.
Cheering Up The King is a multi-modal and interactive show, cleverly designed to thrive and evolve with audience participation. However, the central premise follows (as you might imagine) the story of a crestfallen King, who, despite his Jester’s best efforts, cannot seem to be cheered up. The audience are then asked for suggestions on how to cheer up the King and encouraged to share what makes them happy, in the hope this might succeed in lifting his spirits. Using this method, the light-hearted and pun-filled performance encourages youngsters to consider what improves their mental wellbeing and how to enhance the mood of those around them.
Unfortunately, The Postings in Kirkcaldy does not see much footfall these days, with most crossing its doors only to use it as a thoroughfare to the bus station. As a result, Cheering Up The King did not receive the attention or audience it undeniably deserved. However, the small audience size had no impact on the boundless enthusiasm of the performers and fostered an intimate, engaging experience for the children and their parents. The performers’ impressive ability to inspire participation, even in incredibly young and easily distracted children, resulted in one impassioned attendee choosing to sing two songs in front of the group – and the King couldn’t help but smile.
The performance incorporated a range of mediums, including colourful and tactile props; physical engagement through activities such as juggling; anecdotes with a positive mental wellbeing message; and a final craft task. All of these were designed to reflect on what made the attendees happy and all served to underline the take home message: know what makes you happy, know what you might have to do to cheer yourself or others up, and know that improved mental wellbeing can be achieved through discussion.
Throughout the performance, though, one particular issue struck me. While it is fantastic that arts projects are able to facilitate discussions regarding mental wellbeing amongst younger generations, they shouldn’t be the sole platform. Throughout my entire time at primary and secondary school, I vividly recall detailed drugs, alcohol and sexual health education, but not once was mental wellbeing even being touched upon – let alone candidly discussed. I am far from alone in this experience – many children and adolescents receive absolutely no formal mental health awareness education at all.
At least nowadays, some theatre companies can be brought into schools to approach these issues. Suit and Pace themselves have run workshops for senior high school pupils in order to promote frank discussion regarding mental health. While this is an excellent and worthwhile initiative, it is simply not enough. In order to ensure children and adolescents feel comfortable discussing mental health, education regarding mental wellbeing should follow the same model as drugs, alcohol and sexual health – starting early and increasing with age. This would promote forthright discussion, reduce stigma, and ensure young people know the appropriate steps to take should they themselves experience problems or find themselves supporting a friend or family member. Given that a quarter of us will experience a mental health problem in any given year, it’s inconceivable that it does not yet have a place in school curriculums.
Written by Nicole Bell
Image by Faisal Aziz