Our brain is in constant communication with our body - prompting it left or right, backwards or forwards like a captain navigating a ship. We can steer ourselves in certain directions but when a storm hits, we are powerless to quieten the thunder or lessen the strength of the wind. We can become paralysed and let the days wash over us like a relentless tide, bringing with it debris and mayhem before heading back out dragging every thread of strength from our ailing grip until our hands are rubbed raw and all we can do is let go. Or, we can battle down the hatches, patch up every hole and do the best we can with what we’ve got.

Be it mental or physical, chronic illness is rife with pain. We react to our suffering in so many different ways through an exhausting spectrum of emotions; some that are displayed outwardly like anger and frustration, tumultuous flares set alight to alert others of our inner conflict. Other feelings like grief, fear or shame might swallow us whole, nibbling us piece by piece from the inside out like a systemic infection gradually switching off our lights. There is no right or wrong way to respond, our visceral reactions cannot be predetermined nor reasoned with and our conclusion of a situation is not always choice. Ultimately, we have lost control of a body or mind that we cannot escape.

When you tell someone that you are suffering from an illness like depression perhaps, or anxiety, a common reaction is for them to tell you to ‘keep positive’ or say that things ‘could always be worse,’ sometimes accompanying this with anecdotes of success stories or quotes. Despite their best intentions, it is particularly hard for a non-sufferer to empathise with mental illness. This can further increase a sufferer’s loss of control by emphasising feelings of loneliness and despair. As well as you may succeed in maintaining a positive, can-do attitude, the control you once had over the person you once were is imperceptibly stripped of you, melting away drip by drop as the intensity of your illness escalates.

Scientists work tirelessly to research and explore possible causes and routes of illness, but even the brightest minds can stand feeble against nature and its plight of self-expression and evolution. We are all in the shadow of this lingering threat to our wellbeing; a vastly complex network of correspondence that does not ask questions before taking prisoners. Mental illness is akin to atoms around us, impending and impressible, sparking reactions with infinite consequences triggered by unforeseeable conditions and encounters.

Our recovery can feel confined to a hopeless cycle of small gains and bigger losses; in itself an exhausting existence likely to clip the sails of any healthy person let alone those who have weathered storm after turbulent storm. The times when we most need to assemble strength are when we feel like we don’t even have the energy left to reach the end of the day. Each illness can manifest very differently from person to person, meaning that there cannot always be a conventional course of ‘treatment’ from medical professionals. It is hard to offer a prognosis, causing the light at the end of the tunnel to flicker dimly, extinguishable by the smallest gust of wind. Despite the greatest efforts of doctors, psychiatrists, friends and family, it is ultimately we who must gather up the fragile pieces of ourselves to become whole again, albeit with the odd crack.

Acknowledging complex and painful feelings is the first step in working through them. By quashing and masking them, we allow the illness to strengthen its roots and remain intact. Writing our thoughts enables us to communicate emotions with full disclosure in a safe environment, relieving the destructive pressure of suppressed emotion that can cause further long-term damage. It can also provide a way of informing others, with a clear and vivid picture of the various manifestations of mental illness.

Fortunately, research into mental illness has increased in recent years, and there have been many successful campaigns to highlight its prevalence and to bring it further into mainstream discussion. Unfortunately, though it is 2018, mental illness continues to spread rapidly; it is still misunderstood and a subject that continues to make people very uncomfortable. To avoid feelings of awkwardness and discomfort in others, sufferers are often overprescribed uninformed and tedious advice to look on the brighter side of life. In every other illness, you have a license to wallow, show ‘weakness,’ to ask for help and cry. People will commiserate, comfort, and offer all they can to help. When it is mental illness that you’re suffering from, you can feel forced into keeping a confident and ‘happy’ appearance for the sake of everyone but yourself.

On 9 May, the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival is hosting a workshop called Women Writing For Change at Augustine United Church on George IV Bridge. This is an event for women, writers and non-writers alike, who suffer and have suffered from mental illness, to band together in mutual, even if non-verbalised, support of one another, encouraging self-expression by putting pen to paper. This is an opportunity for women to write the words that we struggle to speak, to lessen the burden of the commotion in our heads by creating something tangible out of the chaos. Sylvia Plath was one of the pioneering women to exhibit and chronicle her own mental illness in her novel The Bell Jar, following in the footsteps of Charlotte Perkins Stetson who wrote the essay The Yellow Wallpaper seventy years earlier. Plath’s work was firstly received with opposition and revulsion by publishers, but in 1982 she was the first person to be awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize.

“Writing, then, was a substitute for myself…It is also much more: a way of ordering and reordering the chaos of experience.”

Sylvia Plath

Both of these women opened up the discussion around women’s psychological misery, presenting it to society by thrusting it into mainstream literature that mental illness was something that ought to be faced head on and not spoken about in whispers behind closed doors.

Every year, one in every four people in the UK will experience mental health issues. That is one person in every average family stricken with an invisible illness that disengages them from their original self. When suffering from mental illness, including prolonged anguish brought on by physical trauma, the smallest actions in our daily lives can seem unconquerable. When there’s no point in showering because you’ll be going straight back to bed, when its preferable to go hungry than make the effort it takes to eat, when the idea of seeing other people makes you feel physically sick with dread. These are feelings we do not choose; when our bodies are taken over by emotions more powerful than our ability to resist them, we must find a way to take back control - of who we are and who we will become. Our guidance comes primarily from acceptance, self-reflection and an ultimate desire to heal - three ingredients that we all have within us. Explore the things you can achieve and notice success in the smallest of actions, ratify your feelings and let them be known, for there is incredible power in accepting your pain.

by Mimi Dickson

Workshop Women Writing For Change takes place at Augustine United Church, Edinburgh on Wed 9 May at 2pm. Glasgow Women's Library are also hosting a series of events in Renfrewshire exploring women in literature and film: Workshop Story Cafe: Changing Stories (Tue 8 May),  Workshop Story Cafe: New Beginnings (Tue 15 May) and Tips for Girls (Wed 16 May). 

Jassy Earl chats with Dan Proverbs, founder of the campaign Brothers in Arms, and Duncan Cowles, a documentary film-maker currently working on his first feature Silent Men. They discuss men's mental health, the barriers which inhibit men from opening up and the ways in which we can begin to talk and find other ways of talking about feelings, emotions and what goes on in our heads, during times of good and bad.

Jassy Earl is a photographer, videographer and performance maker. At the core of her practice is an emphasis on people, stories and the human experience, working with people, children and communities. Most recently she is interested in grief, loss and the dialogues we have around death, particularly with young people. To find out more about her work, visit her website

The music featured in the podcast is 'Bermuda Triangle' by Liam Chapman and Prehistoric Friends

Liam Chapman and Prehistoric Friends 

In Looking In: Experiences Through the Ages, Nicole and Iain from Support in Mind Scotland discuss two multi-arts events at the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival: Six O'clock in Princes Street and Neu! Reekie!

Named after the famous Wilfred Owen poem, Six O'clock in Princes Street was a night of poetry and performance in the stunning setting of Edinburgh Castle's Great Hall. Exploring veterans' experience with trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, it was led by NHS Lothian, Scottish Poetry Library, Strange Town and Veterans First Point.

Popular spoken word night Neu! Reekie!, curated by Kevin Williamson and Michael Pedersen, took place in partnership with Dundee Literary Festival at Bonar Hall. Featuring novelist Jenni Fagan, presenting her short film Bangour Village Hospital, Loki, the Scottish rapper, guitarist Craig Lithgow, and Kevin Williamson and KiXX Collective performing a racy retelling of Robert Burns' Tam o' Shanter, it was a memorable evening.

 

You can watch material mentioned in the podcast here:

Jenni Fagan, Bangour Village Hospital

Loki

Support in Mind Scotland seek to support and empower all those affected by mental illness, including family members, carers and supporters. To find out more, visit their website

Nicole Bell is the Capacity Building Officer for Support in Mind Scotland. Splitting her time between Fife and Edinburgh, she is frequently spotted catching up with friends while exploring the gastronomic delights at either end of the Forth Road Bridge. Find her on Twitter at @nicolebellcurve.

Iain Mitchell is Community Partnership Fundraising Officer for the mental health charity Support in Mind Scotland. A lover of cinema, Popmaster on Radio 2, animal odd-couples, Iron Maiden and checked shirts. Find him on Twitter @toast2toast9.

You can now subscribe to the Mental Health Arts Podcast through Soundcloud and iTunes.  

"There was a recurring theme of escaping, escaping in some ways the prison that mental illness can become for some people."

In Looking Closer, Nicole and Iain from Support in Mind Scotland travel up and down the country speaking to people involved in exhibitions at the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival 2017. This podcast features interviews with SMHAF Highland partner organisations, who hosted exhibitions at The Bike Shed, Inverness; and The Stafford Centre, SiMS' own community resource in Edinburgh. They also discuss artworks from Out of Sight, Out of Mind and Duvet Day, a physical exploration of depression by C&O Dance Theatre.

Support in Mind Scotland seek to support and empower all those affected by mental illness, including family members, carers and supporters. To find out more, visit their website

Nicole Bell is the Capacity Building Officer for Support in Mind Scotland. Splitting her time between Fife and Edinburgh, she is frequently spotted catching up with friends while exploring the gastronomic delights at either end of the Forth Road Bridge. Find her on Twitter at @nicolebellcurve.

Iain Mitchell is Community Partnership Fundraising Officer for the mental health charity Support in Mind Scotland. A lover of cinema, Popmaster on Radio 2, animal odd-couples, Iron Maiden and checked shirts. Find him on Twitter @toast2toast9.

You can now subscribe to the Mental Health Arts Podcast through Soundcloud and iTunes.  

The Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival partnered with the WOW festival in Perth to hold a sexism and mental health drop-in workshop for women. The event created a safe environment for women to hear and share their experience of sexist policy on their mental health.

The workshop was led by Dr Iris Elliot, Head of Policy and Research for the Mental Health Foundation, Gail Aldam, Arts and Events Manager for the Mental Health Foundation Scotland, and Maryam Hamidi from the cast of Hysteria!, AJ Taudevin's political cabaret which premiered at SMHAF.

Talking Heads volunteer Shirley Hellyar spoke to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who spoke at WOW's launch event, about the impact that sexism can have on mental health and the inequalities that women face within today’s society.

As a powerful successful woman in politics, what has been your biggest challenge to overcome with regards to discrimination?

I’ve had cause recently to reflect on the fact that although things are infinitely better than they were 20 years ago, it is often still the case that women are judged by completely different standards to men.

Just after Theresa May became Prime Minister, she came up to meet with me at Bute House in Edinburgh. I remember thinking that day that regardless of our political differences, the image – of a female First Minister of Scotland meeting with a female Prime Minister of the UK – was quite a powerful one for other women and possibly especially for young girls. It sent a message that anything was possible – there are no areas that any longer should be seen as being off limits for women. I remember vividly coming out of that meeting and looking at what was happening on social media and the first image of Theresa May and I meeting on the steps of Bute House, that I saw when I went onto social media, had cut both of us off at the knees because it was an image illustrating a story about what shoes we’d both been wearing. So here we had two female leaders discussing fairly important things like Brexit and the future of the country, but some journalist somewhere had decided the most important thing about that meeting was to compare the shoes we were wearing.

The same actually happened a few months later when I went to visit Theresa May in Downing Street and one newspaper after that meeting illustrated it with a photo of me walking down Downing Street and had the headline “First Minister tries to outdo the Prime Minister on the shoe front”, and again there was a picture of me from the knees down.

Now I really like shoes, but I think there’s more to women politicians than the shoes they wear, and I can’t imagine when Alex Salmond went to meet David Cameron at Downing Street that anyone would have been interested in their shoes.

It is a serious point – women are judged differently and the criteria that you are judged by are very different. Now that focus – on how we look and what we wear – is something that, after more than 20 years in politics, I’ve become personally quite inured by now. It’s not something I pay too much attention to, but I do know from discussions with younger women that it is still something that is potentially off putting to a younger woman considering a career in politics or public life.

It’s one of the reasons why – even although I’m inured to it – I feel a responsibility to speak up about that kind of treatment of women. Whether it’s the more light-hearted treatment of women or the more serious discrimination or prejudice or holding to different standards that women still often experience. And that’s because one of the things I pledged to myself as well as to other people that I wanted to do as First Minister – as the first woman to hold the office of First Minister in Scotland – is to try to use whatever influence that I had to make a difference to the opportunities and chances that other girls and women have now and in the future.

What are main barriers that women face at the moment with regards to stigma and discrimination, and how do you think we as women can overcome them?

Unfortunately, even in 2017, women here and all around the world face inequality in many areas of their lives.

In the workplace they still face pregnancy discrimination, make up the majority of low paid workers, and are underrepresented in senior positions in the organisations and businesses that they work for. The unpaid caring work that they do is undervalued, and all of this contributes to the gender pay gap.

This deficit is reflected in wider society such as politics and the legal sector, with over 70% of the top positions in Scotland held by men.

Alongside this is the everyday sexism and gender stereotyping that many women and girls face and that culturally has been seen as acceptable for generations.

This all sounds deeply depressing and it is, but I am determined that my government will make a difference for women and girls. I have made this clear from day one in my policies and practice – from ensuring women are equally represented in my Cabinet, to making affordable and high quality early learning and childcare a key policy for my government. This isn’t just rhetoric, this is absolutely a priority for me in my time as first minister.

But it's not just government that can tackle inequality, we all should when we see it. I've seen fantastic examples of women and men, girls and boys coming together to challenge discrimination and sexism and that is very powerful, and I encourage more people to become involved in any way that works for them - through social media, their student associations or unions, with political parties or with charities or NGOs working to achieve women's equality. Together we can make a real difference.

What advice would you give to both men and women to challenge discrimination, in this current climate of recent events, such as Donald Trump being elected President in the USA, and men of power such as Harvey Weinstein who are demeaning and misogynistic and use unacceptable behaviour towards woman?

You should always challenge unacceptable behaviour wherever you see it - whether you’re the recipient of it or if you witness it against someone else. It is also important to challenge the acceptance that behaviours or attributes seen in one light when from a man are seen differently when it is from a woman. In politics, and I’m sure it’s true in other walks of life, what in men is often considered to be strong, assertive leadership is often described by the media and others as bossy, strident or unappealing in a woman. The advice I would give to women would be to always try and stay true to yourself and follow your heart. I believe if you do this then more often than not you’ll make the right decision.

What do you think are the main qualities that make a strong and empowered woman?

Knowing your own mind and developing resilience are vital qualities. If you are good enough and if you work hard enough, the sky should be the limit and no glass ceiling should ever stop you from achieving your dreams. The gender gap, although narrowing, is still a reality. That is why am determined to do everything I can so that everyone has the opportunity to be the best they can be.

by Shirley Hellyar

The second part of Shirley's interview with Nicola Sturgeon, which focuses on mental health discrimination, can be found at the Mental Health Foundation.

Shirley is a writer, actor and model, currently writing her first screenplay and acting as full-time carer for her disabled dad. She has dyslexia, anxiety and depression. She wants to show that with the right help and support anything is possible, and being honest about mental health difficulties is so important in reclaiming who you are.