Life requires a lot of hard work and effort, and the harder working and more ambitious we are, the more successful we feel our lives ought to be. But what cannot involve any hard work or effort from us individually is being brought into this world, yet where that happens can have an extraordinary impact on our lives.
A Belgian baby has, so far in their extremely short life, worked no harder than a Ghanaian baby. However, the level of ambition for each child already differs tremendously. In a country as economically poor as Ghana, a great ambition for a newborn child is often, at some stage in life, to be accepted into Belgium’s economically superior society – something that a Belgian baby has already achieved, even before their brain is properly capable of processing memory.
Adams Mensah had achieved this common Ghanaian ambition by age 14, as he moved along with his sister to join his father in Belgium. This left his mother alone in Ghana, with a difference in life opportunities as vast as the distance between them. But why did this opportunity difference now exist between these people? Simply because he was a Belgian, his mother a Ghanaian.
Adams Mensah’s film, screening at this year’s Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival in a co-presentation with Africa in Motion, documents the director’s experience upon returning to Ghana, nine years after he first moved to Belgium. Six years prior to the making of the documentary, Adams’s mother suffered a severe stroke, in which half of her body became paralysed and she lost her ability to speak.
The film follows Adams’s engagements with his mother and focuses primarily on his efforts to bring her to Belgium to visit her family, although this proves far harder than Adams had foreseen. After a contracted struggle trying to acquire a visa for his mother, the film concludes with Adams describing how the situation made him finally give up, with his ever deteriorating mother never granted permission to visit her family.
What Adams highlights to us throughout the film, is the all-consuming role that health plays in all of our lives. As he approaches staff who work in the relevant embassies, involved with bringing his mother to Belgium, the contrast in their situations is painted clearly. Adams is there to try and give the woman who raised him a taste of the opportunity she granted him nine years ago, and to do so before her health inevitably worsens furthermore. He speaks to employees who are there almost daily, upholding regulation they did not write, primarily to ensure some level of financial success in their own life. It’s a difficult conversation for those involved and a difficult subject in which to reach a realistic and just conclusion in today’s world.
A good life can be well spent chasing ambitions and becoming ever better versions of our past selves. We can view society with wide eyes, see our goals, chase after them, and if we achieve success, embrace it and the happiness it brings to us and those we care about. But no matter how successfully we achieve these goals, and no matter how much we improve ourselves through our lives, if our health or the health of those that we love is threatened, we are forced to reinvent what that success means.
The extent of this reinvention can be a very personal affair, one which is very hard to relate to those who we do not know well. That was exactly the situation apparent in the conversation between Adams and the embassy staff member, where the life-altering milestone of one person is placed into the mundane routine of another. So what causes this diverse transaction of trusted compassion to take place so frequently in modern life? The simplest answer appears to be for financial reasons.
Healthy finances can help to ensure a healthy life, which is one reason why we spend so much time ensuring that we have them, in order to maintain our health and comfort. The member of staff in the embassy is doing just that when Adams approaches him. Reverse the positions of the two people and it is very likely the conversation would remain identical. The point is that Adams can no longer accept the embassy employee’s financial success as his primary ambition, just as he is incapable of appreciating Adams desperate situation, particularly as it is clear that it is not an uncommon one, in his line of work.
There is no implication that the embassy employee is specifically responsible for any wrongdoing, but the situation highlights how commonly our drive for financial success, which can be so detrimental to the health and success of others, can dissociate us from the rest of our lives. We may not be aware the strength of that drive, until we are put in a situation similar to Adams.
It is economics that separates Belgium so distinctly from Ghana and it is economics that allowed Adams to live in Belgium, but his mother not to. It is economics that drove the member of staff in the embassy to refuse Adams’s mother a visa, and it is economics that ensure the embassy and finances need to exist at all.
It is Adams’s clearly bewildered and astonished attitude to the situation he has suddenly been placed in that seems to be both the most damaging and important point in the whole film. What we so painfully miss throughout the world today is just how much love and care we are all capable of. Through appropriate education and restraining our economic and financial ambitions in relation to other aspects of our lives, the long term damage suffered by people like Adams and his mother can be limited.
Whether we are understanding of it or not, what Adams’s story in Me a Belgian, My Mother a Ghanaian makes clear, is that no matter what level of financial success we possess, or what impact birthplace has on our lives, the inherent helpless care that we have for the wellbeing of those we love, has the potential, ultimately, to bring equality for all.
by Callum McLean
One aspect of mental ill-health which is all too often overlooked is the responsibility and pressure that is placed on the carer. Headtorch, an innovative group founded by Amy McDonald, have created a performance that helps to combat this lack of consideration. After receiving funding from NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde and Care Information Scotland, Headtorch collaborated with GAMH to create The Guessing Game, an interactive drama that addresses the need to shift focus towards the role of the carer.
The Guessing Game tells the story of wife and mother, Jane, whose mental health issues worsen as the performance continues. Derek, her husband, introduces the play with the statement that: “It could be anyone’s story”, automatically highlighting to the audience that they too could find themselves in either Derek or Jane’s position. It also alludes to the idea that no one’s story is experienced individually, and that although it’s Jane’s mental health that is affected directly, the suffering can affect anyone around her. As the performance continues, we see Derek’s struggle as he tries to navigate through this difficult time.
The piece advocates the importance of a shift from the traditional linear model in our treatment of mental health issues towards, the Triangle of Care. This is a more holistic approach, which creates an interconnection between the service user, professional, and carer. The model is intended to promote safety and a greater support system for all those involved. As the story unravels, we are introduced to the six key concepts of the Triangle of Care:
1. Carer identification - the need to identify the carer and their essential role as early as possible.
2. Carer awareness - staff can engage with and educate the carer on their role.
3. Confidentiality - policy and practice protocols are clearly defined in regards to information sharing.
4. Carer introduction to the staff and service.
5. Carer support services are available.
6. Defined posts/positions responsible for carers are in place.
In adopting this model, the experience of all parties involved can be made easier. Not only can the difficulty of the carer’s work be dramatically reduced, but having a carer who is well-trained and fully aware of how to best look after their loved one can have huge benefits for those suffering from the mental ill-health, and subsequently make the professional’s job a lot easier.
From the onset of the The Guessing Game, we are met with Derek’s cry for help as he watches his wife’s mental state deteriorate. He uses an analogy which describes the situation quite accurately: when you go to the doctor with a broken arm, you are told to rest and give it time to heal, however no such guidance is offered in the situation of his wife’s illness.
Of course, mental illness is often a lot more complex than a broken bone, and no individual experiences issues in the same way, but his cry simply demands for some kind of guidance as to how he can best care for Jane. He states that after having had many jobs: “Being a carer is the hardest job I’ve has ever had.” This seems completely plausible, when a carer’s work involves on average 60 hours of unpaid work a week. Mental health carers can also be negatively impacted by stigma, financial issues, lack of respite, and the subsequent effect on their own mental health.
The Guessing Game also addresses the role of the professional within The Triangle of Care, at one point engaging the audience by allowing them to interrupt the scene and state how they would alter the nurse’s actions. The points of critique offered regarded her treatment of both Jane and Derek. She treated Jane in an extremely clinical manner, with a lack of eye contact or empathy, and what seems to be an attempt to brush her off with the advice to get “employee counselling at work.”
With regard to Derek, the nurse fails to disclose any information about the steps he should take, based solely on “confidentiality”. In this sense, Jane leaves the office with little direction as to the action she needs to take to get better, and the finger is pointed at Derek as the nurse tells him he should “pay her some attention”.
The audience is also given the chance to intersect and get an insight into the internal thoughts of the characters. This is particularly effective as it allows us to see not only what is going through Derek’s head, as his behaviour becomes increasingly aggressive, but also into the doctor’s head, as the time pressure she is under causes her to try to end the meeting swiftly.
One of the main issues in Jane and Derek’s story is the lack of communication, and the play replicates the reality of being torn between doing the “morally correct” thing and obeying the thin lines of confidentiality in the professional world. However, through having the ability to intervene and change the action of the play, we have the chance to alter the outcome of the situation and can see the difference in, for example, a nurse taking the time to talk to and explain the situation to the carer, rather than leaving them completely out of the loop
One audience member noted the harmfulness of the language often used to with regard to mental illness. The power of language can be seen, ranging from the way we, as outsiders, discuss mental health, to the way GPs or professionals treat their patients and those patient’s carers. For example, when trying to confide in a friend, Derek is advised to tell his wife to “pull herself together”. This highlights the stigma and stereotypes surrounding mental health issues that are still so prominent in our culture today.
Towards the end of the play, Derek outlines what seems to be one of the most important messages for anyone involved in the life of someone suffering from mental health issues. He states, regarding the doctor, that: “Morally, they should see I am struggling and offer me help.” This goes back to the idea of the disconnection in the client-patient-carer relationship, and the need for communication and involvement, in order to come up with the best solution to reduce the suffering of all of those involved.
by Taylor Gardner
Victoria Melody is an artist, theatremaker and performer, who is bringing Ugly Chief to the Festival of Ian Smith at Summerhall. In it, she celebrates her Dad, Mike Melody, his life, and the odd journey he had after being diagnosed with motor neurone disease – a journey that ended up with a surprising ending.
Can you tell us more about Ugly Chief?
Ugly Chief is a show that I’m making with my Dad. We’re still in the research and development stage of it, so what we’re bringing to Summerhall is a glimpse of where we are in the process. We’re finishing making it in 2017, which is when we’re going to tour it. It’s a show I’m very excited about.
It all came about because, first off, he’s a big show off. He’s a big character. Sometimes when people meet him they’re quite taken aback. He doesn’t stop talking and he’s unconventional in that he doesn’t care what people think of him, so he says what he wants, but he’s quite funny with it. He does daytime TV shows, he’s an antique dealer, and he’s got a lot of stories about the business. He started from very meagre beginnings and he’s built up a business for himself. He’s got all these tales of what it was like going from being brought up in the north of England during a tricky time, and how inventive you have to be when you don’t have any money, and how he basically scraped a living for himself.
He and I are similar. We’re the only show offs in the family. We’re the only ones that have gone into the business of entertainment, and we both like to talk. He was diagnosed with a terminal illness - motor neurone disease - and this was obviously really, really sad. After two years of living with that hanging over him, he went to the doctors and they said that he wasn’t degenerating - they’d misdiagnosed him. And he’s fine! When Dad gave all of us the news, I said straight away: ‘Do you wanna make a show with me now you’re not gonna die?’ It made me realise that we’re similar and it’s a shame that we’ve never collaborated on a project. He absolutely jumped at the chance, so we’re making a show about his funeral. This show is his funeral.
What are you hoping people will get out of the show?
We’re still exploring different angles, and we're still disagreeing on which direction it could go. The show is a love letter from a daughter to her Dad. It’s about speaking eulogies while we’re alive, because it’s a shame that those speeches, these incredible speeches where people talk about your life, are kept for when you’re dead, rather than being told while you’re alive. You’d love to hear that stuff, wouldn’t you? So it’s a eulogy for a living soul.
It’s also about breaking the taboo about talking about death. Obviously Dad and I have talked a lot about death and about funeral plans and things like that. I think there’s something quite comforting about knowing exactly what somebody wants, rather than the time coming, being struck by grief and having to make all these decisions. So it’s about demystifying the British funeral industry. I’ve been training to be a funeral director so that I can explain what goes on, because there’s something about being confronted by your own mortality that allows you to really live your life. Finding out all the behind-the-door routines and rituals that happen to your body has made me fear death less.
As a society, do you think we’re changing the way we view and talk about death?
The Victorians were much more in touch with dying and the death process, but over time it’s become very medicalised. It used to be very common that people would take their last breaths in their house, but now people want them in a hospital. For me, it’d be nicer to be in your home and to have your family around you. There’s a real big positive death movement around at the moment and I’ve been working with quite a few people who are trying to open it up for more discussion. People want to talk about this stuff. We’re at the beginning of a movement and at the beginning of change.
What else should people know?
Although this is a very serious theme, it’s funny. Dad and I are funny, and we’re funny together. We’re a real father and daughter on stage. Dad can’t be scripted; he’s better when he’s reacting. When he’s got a script in front of him, he’s dreadful. It’s going to be a different show every single night. I’m going to create a different eulogy for him every evening. Sometimes he doesn’t agree with what I’ve written in his eulogy, and we’ll have an argument and you’re seeing a real insight into a father and child relationship. Although the theme sounds heavy, we’re doing it in quite a light way, we’re not hammering it in. It is a work in progress, I’m going to be reading from a script, so it’s going to be a little bit rough, but I think that’s quite exciting. You’re going to see more of us than when the completed, quite slick show tours.
by Kirstyn Smith
Festival of Ian Smith: A Celebration of Death is at Summerhall, 28 Oct-27 Nov. Click here for full listings of the exhibitions, performances and events taking place as part of the festival.
Image: Andy Schofield
We arrive at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh way before five. "I don't want to be too early," I'd said to my husband Rob, "hanging around like a spare part." In fact, the party has already started. The cafe is crowded, buzzing with animated conversations and relaxed laughter. In the air, the aroma of fresh coffee and a touch of nervous excitement. I scan the faces, noticing that many are focused on the booklet Time, which contains all ten short-listed pieces for the 2016 Writing Awards. I'm one of those ten. Really.
Gail Aldam sends the ten entrants downstairs to meet with Jenny Lindsay, the MC for the evening. I am delighted to see the theatre - it's the perfect space. A lectern on the small stage awaits us. That erases the stand-or-sit question. I feel calm. I notice my fellow writers as we loiter on the steps of the theatre. Jenny chats and makes brief notes. There's a sense of wanting to get started. I head back up to the cafe to collect my bag (and husband), as friends, family and random supporters are going down to the theatre.
I try to focus on the content of the submissions, but I am drawn to the presentation, the voice, the bearing. I am fourth to read. Jenny announces me. Already? I'm on the stage. It's very quiet. Slight nervousness. "Thrilled to be here, by the way," I say. I pour myself some water and slow my breathing. I read my piece. It is not my story, but I know, without a doubt, that this audience feels the full force of my heart. It's in my pace, my voice, my concentration.
I listen better to the entrants following me. It's all here: humour, heartbreak, anger. Ordinary, extraordinary people - standing up, speaking out. This is me, they say. Deal with it. The writings, the readings, are powerful. There's a restfulness in the theatre when we have finished. The audience, besides listening, seems to have upheld us, cushioned us.
You can read all of the shortlisted entries in the beautiful e-book below, designed by Josie Vallely:
Now Jenny and Gail are on stage, preparing to announce the prize winners. I feel genuinely happy to be here; to have disclosed something significant about myself. And, (lurking at the back of my mind) there is the hope that I may get 'Highly Commended'. No. From this point, my reasonably sharp faculties seem to be a tad spongy. It's all happening so quickly. I hear my name called in connection with the word 'Winner'. I turn to Rob. He looks as shell-shocked as I feel.
I'm heading down the steps towards the stage. Thoughts flash through....don't trip now....feel like I'm in Hollywood....get a grip before this whole damn thing goes pear-shaped. Such warm applause. I feel self-conscious, and elated. I'm at the lectern again, hopefully stringing some meaningful sentences together.
Gail asks everyone to regroup upstairs for a drinks reception. "Whatever there is," I say to Rob, "I'm having it." There are congratulations, wine and chat. There's a photographer with blue hair. Everything fits. I speak with a fellow prize-winner whose writing intrigued me. First prize, and then, this surprisingly fierce connection with a stranger. A jewel of an evening. I am full to the brim. I'll need to lie down in a darkened room shortly.
by Angela Wright
Currently running in various venues across Renfrewshire, Recovery Fest is a festival that aims to demonstrate the therapeutic benefits that the arts, music and cultural activities can have upon recovery from addiction. Funded by Renfrewshire Alcohol & Drugs Partnership, Recovery Fest showcases the work of several local recovery groups and services.
Events include the premiere of Dykebar and Me, a poignant film by the Torley Unit’s Long Term Recovery Group, featuring the personal challenges, triumphs and hopes for the future of those who have journeyed through addiction to recovery.
The Paisley Guitar Group (based within the Sunshine Recovery Café) will host their second Big Peace & Jam event, celebrating music’s positive impact on recovery.
Write into Recovery @ Sunshine Recovery Café will showcase inspirational poetry and prose created by the writers’ group at the Sunshine Recovery Café.
The Family Support Group will host a monologue play at Paisley Arts Centre, as part of the performance of Where the Crow Flies. The monologue addresses many of the issues faced by families affected by addiction.
Recovery Fest culminates with a large dance music event, Strictly Recovery: Time to Dance. Working with partners from RAMH, Strictly Recovery will offer a night out without alcohol and drugs, celebrating recovery and offering an opportunity to improve social networks. The following day, Paisley’s first Recovery Church will explore hope, faith and love as key elements in recovery.
by Mark Jones
Click here for more information on all the events taking place as part of Recovery Fest.