A Play, A Pie and a Pint at Òran Mór is one of the most iconic regular events that takes place in Glasgow. For your ticket, you are given a small-scale performance with up to three actors, alongside a beverage and your lunch to enjoy as you watch.
Recent themes in the current season of plays have included sci-fi and political satire, but for the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, in association with Luminate, a new play Descent was performed six times over consecutive days, promising an accurate account of dementia and its struggles. I was intrigued: how would such a serious health issue be conveyed among more light-hearted plays in such a basic form?
One set and three characters were all that was needed. The play followed Rob (Barrie Hunter), an architect who is developing dementia. His wife Cathy (Wendy Seager) and young adult daughter Nicola (Fiona MacNeil) are forced to deal with his downfall and both have different methods on how to do so. Rob goes from a spontaneous, fun-searching worker to being paranoid, scared of change and unable to remember the most basic tasks. Admittedly, I went into the play without knowing much at all about the dementia. All I knew was that the person will suffer memory loss. But after a quick Google search, I was greeted with the synonyms ‘insanity’ and ‘lunacy’.
Thankfully, Descent showed both those synonyms to be wrong. It truly educated me, and, more than likely, many audience members, about the true reality of living with dementia. Along with forgetfulness, there can be frustration, lack of logic and a complete change in personality. Hunter portrayed the role of a sufferer accurately. At the beginning of the play, his character Rob showed no effects of the illness and the audience even laughed when he started falling into memory loss.
A game of Trivial Pursuit between the characters where Rob claims that England won the World Cup in 1066 gained the most laughter of all. However, the more serious his condition became and the more he forgot, the less we were laughing. After Cathy has to pick him up from work for the umpteenth time because he has forgotten how to drive his car, the message becomes clear: dementia is a serious, life-changing illness.
Seager and MacNeil also played their characters excellently. The mother and daughter duo argue numerous times over how Rob should be treated. Cathy is adamant he should be looked after at home, while Nicola believes he should be taken into a nursing home. They conveyed the struggle of family members looking after a loved one who does not want to be looked after and their characters generated the most tears among the audience.
Written by Linda Duncan McLaughlin and directed by Allie Butler, Descent was a realistic portrayal of dementia. We finally live in a world where mental health conditions, including dementia, are being counted as real illnesses, and productions like Descent are helping to educate on the warning signs. The play’s true message is that no one should have to go through dementia alone and help needs to be there when they need it.
Written by Rebecca Cook
Having completed its run at Òran Mór, A Play, A Pie & A Pint continues with Descent at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh until Sat 24 Oct, with an additional evening performance at 7pm on Fri 23 Oct.
Three authors scooped distinguished prizes at the Scottish Mental Health Film and Arts Festival’s 2015 Writing Awards. With over 120 entries to the competition this year, the judges worked together to whittle them down to a final twelve, and the shortlisted writers showcased their pieces during the ceremony. Commendations were handed out to Douglas Nicholson and Clare Blackburne, while the top prize was presented to writer Harry Stigner for her moving short story ‘Selkie’.
The Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival’s second annual Writing Awards ceremony took place on Thursday evening at St George’s Tron Church in Glasgow. Held in conjunction with Bipolar Scotland, the event was hosted by Times journalist Kenny Farquharson, who was joined by fellow judges Bipolar Scotland chair and author Gordon Johnston, Glasgow University lecturer Dr Elizabeth Reeder and celebrated screenwriter Donna Franceschild.
In total, twelve entries were shortlisted and three prizes dished out on the night. One top prize was up for grabs and two submissions were singled out as highly commended. The evening kicked off with an enlightening couple of songs from local musician Shambles Miller.
The first commendation was to Douglas Nicholson, a director for Health in Mind in Edinburgh. Picking up the prize on his behalf was his colleague Doreen Graham. His poem ‘Lutine Bell’ told the tale of the HMS Lutine that sadly sank. It focused on the symbolism of the ship’s bell salvaged from the wreck, ringing once if lost or twice if found again. It portrayed deeper meanings, looking to understand how individuals with mental health problems can also find themselves lost and without hope but ultimately that doesn’t mean that in time they won't find their way back.
Delighted to be receiving the award on behalf of Douglas, Doreen said: ‘I’m sure Douglas will be doing cartwheels knowing he has won an award for the poem. It was a privilege to read it for him and the whole event has been so special. He’s written this poem with immense insight into how mental health can actually affect someone’s life and the highs and lows that brings, but I know he’ll be so thrilled his words have meant so much to so many people.’
Also commended on the night was Clare Blackburne, a well-travelled writer who spent the last nine years in Asia. ‘A Letter to V.’ was another highlight of the night, written and performed by Clare. The poem bore themes of madness and greatness intertwined, referring to the powerful legacy of Vincent Van Gogh, affectionately known as V. Clare’s passion proved cathartic in this instance as she took home the other award. It engaged, enthralled and explored the deeper Latin definition of what passion really is, the love but also the suffering.
The outright winner from the Writing Awards this year was London based author Harry Stigner. The 28-year-old studied the craft of writing but only recently felt she had the confidence to enter into competitions and put herself out there. Her short story ‘Selkie’ encompasses aspects of her own experiences with mental ill-health, as well drawing on tradition and folklore.
In Glasgow for the night, before heading off to Madagascar for a six month beekeeping project, Harry spoke to me about what winning meant to her. She said: ‘It feels like a bit of a contract now, I need to take my writing seriously and no longer be embarrassed by sharing it with people, and that’s one thing the course I was on taught me.’
Reflecting on what inspired the story behind ‘Selkie’ Harry continued: ‘It’s hard to pinpoint but I feel like that there is a bit of me in all of the characters. I did go swimming in the border of Norfolk and Suffolk and there was a seal in the water, and at the time I was struggling with depression.
‘I later then heard the folklore about what a Selkie is, a “seal woman”, who becomes a woman for a time and then goes back to the seal, but I don’t know who I identify with most in the story. It’s either the daughter or the mother but there are parts of me in both of them. I can’t explain it but it felt like an analogy for how I was feeling at the time.
‘Every other person I’m close to in my life has experienced mental ill health and they are creative people and I think this festival is so empowering and so many beautiful things have come from it.’
The shortlist as a whole had a wide ranging spectrum of talent from heartfelt letters to moving poetry. Poems performed on the night included a recital of ‘close’ by Eileen Taylor. It was rich with meaning and intense in its delivery, exploring metaphorical doors that open up for us and then close again, striking vivid imagery throughout.
Across the pond in New York, Michelle Chen wrote the equally moving poem 'November', read on the night by Donna Franceschild. Aged only 16, the young writer was inspired by events at home in New York and using powerful imagery depicts two weeks spent in a Manhattan hospital, reiterating the notion: ‘I'm not crazy, just a little unwell.’
Another four poems added weight to the strength of entries this year. ‘Passion’ was the title for two, the first an enlightening exploration of what a panic attack can feel like, really brought to life by the performance of the young and talented Reyah Martin. It was delightfully dazzling and every breath was shared with the audience.
David Subacchi from Wrexham was unable to make the trip, but his passionate piece was shared by judge Gordon Johnston.
The Glasgow audience were not left disappointed as Brian Reid from Beith delivered his poem ‘kiss’ in local Ayrshire vernacular.
It wasn’t just an event to showcase poetry though with a couple of heartfelt letters also striking a chord. Young blogger and fashion design student Aymie Black stood up and read out 'Letter to my Sixteen Year Old Self', touching on the themes of relationships and how depression was triggered by an early breakdown. It was emotional and left many to perhaps reflect on what they would write back to a younger version of themselves.
‘Dear Mum’ by Lubna Kerr explored the difficulty of discussing emotions in Pakistani culture, loss and bridging that gap when your comfort blanket goes. A tear-jerking piece, it left a distinct impression about what can happen when you lose your drive and direction.
Playwright Jen McGregor shared an excerpt from her short story ‘Old Woman with Masks’, dedicated to parents Bill and Jackie. It is built around the idea that life is an intricately carved mask where we can hide our real persona and be who we want to be. Narrated by an older woman, it brought up harsh realities about loneliness, the end of life but ultimately making every moment count.
English teacher Alyson Lawson from Glasgow was unable to attend due to work commitments but her story 'Vicious Little Stars' was a vivid portrayal of the cruelty of children.
All entries were well received and the winners worthy of their titles. The awards continue to grow and Gordon Johnston from Bipolar Scotland hopes the event will keep making an impact in the future: ‘This is the fourth year we’ve run the competition and it’s definitely been the best standard of all of them.
‘All the winners were all very different and what we loved about ‘Selkie’ was the ambiguous ending. We spent quite a bit of time discussing the three or four endings and what was the one that was meant and I think that’s a real strength from an author to be able write something that makes sense but leave things still open for interpretation.’
Written by Holly McCormack
It is now widely acknowledged that exercise can be helpful as a way to manage mild to moderate depression and anxiety. Doctors can now prescribe exercise, in the first instance, when presented with symptoms of these disorders.
The impact of exercise on mental health conditions is generally considered to be due to the increase in levels of the body’s ‘feel good’ chemicals, endorphins. However, other theories do exist, including the notion that, during physical exertion, the muscles produce an enzyme that purges the blood of a substance which accumulates during stress. No conclusive evidence exists, but whether it is because of something physiological, the boost to self-esteem, the sense of achievement, or simply the distraction from those dark thoughts and feelings, most people who experience these conditions will agree that exercise goes some way to alleviating stress and some symptoms of depression.
For me, running was hugely helpful in coping with generalised anxiety disorder and depression, which have been part of my life for some years. It was my first visit to the doctors that brought home to me how keeping active was vital to my mental wellbeing. ‘Have you tried exercise?’ my doctor asked. With very little thought and a slightly dismissive reaction, I assured her that I was a fit and active twenty-something. But the realisation began to dawn on me that, although I was involved in numerous sports as a teenager and into my early twenties, my current lifestyle had dismissed any physically active pursuits other than picking up a guitar or going for the occasional walk. So, I began to reintroduce them. Still hugely socially anxious, meeting new people was fairly terrifying, so team sports were out of the question. So, once I was able to summon up the motivation, I started running as a means to managing my mental health. For me, it really was a case of ‘healthy body, healthy mind’.
Promoting a more active lifestyle to sufferers of depression can have numerous benefits, not least encouraging social interaction and generally getting out and about, at times when the motivation to do so is so hard to come by. Mischief La-Bas, a highly innovative theatre company that seeks to directly engage with people by ‘taking themselves to their audience’ rather than vice versa, have an ethos and approach perfectly suited to tackling the stigma that still surrounds mental ill-health. And in their ‘Take the Black Dog Out on a Walk Tour’ they do just that. Des and Liz Mahagow, two running enthusiasts and black dog walkers are touring the nation, replete with day-glo running gear and black dog in tow. Represented by a stuffed toy dog on this occasion, the ‘black dog’ has long been an effective euphemism for depression, and here it serves as the perfect counterweight to Des and Liz’s colourful and zany personas.
Far from preaching about exercise, however, the whole endeavor is more symbolic; an endorsement to put our mental health problems out there in the open, display them for discussion and share each other’s experiences, all with the hope that this airing of our struggles in public can challenge those washed-out stigmas that still cause many sufferers to stuff our problems down into the sock drawer or hide them away at the back of our closets.
Many similar schemes exist, which seek to combine promoting a more active lifestyle with a forum for dialogue about mental health issues. Mental health awareness ‘community walks’ have begun to spring up all over the country, providing networks for people to chat, share or just act as a visible show of solidarity while you stretch your legs.
Des and Liz’s presence at this year’s Festival is hugely inspiring. They are symbolic standard bearers, adorned in bright sportswear, exuding positivity with wide infectious smiles; they are the visual antithesis of the ‘black dog’. Yet at the same time, they can be seen as champions of this complex beast. Many who live with the ‘black dog’ will tell you that they wouldn’t live without some of its characteristics: introspection, a constantly questioning impulse, or a sparring partner for their creativity. But, like all dogs, it needs constant exercise, room to breathe and frequent dialogue. Only then will the black dog be easier to live with.
Written by Tom Grayson
Follow Des and Liz's Take the Black Dog Out on a Walk Tour through their Twitter page and at Festival events across the country until Sat 31 Oct.
At this event at Milngavie Library and Community Centre, the audience were treated to two speakers, Karen Cowley, recently appointed Chief Executive of the Scottish charity Action on Depression, and Stockton-on-Tees born novelist John Nicholson.
Action on Depression aims to provide support to sufferers of depression, raise awareness of the condition, inform people of the various treatment options and self-help courses that are available to them, and remove the stigma that surrounds mental ill-health. Karen presented some facts and figures about how significantly attitudes towards mental health have changed in recent years, and, more importantly, how much work is still to be done.
John Nicholson’s talk followed Karen’s presentation and gave his own personal insight into living with and coping with depression. He explained how he was able to turn to writing fiction as a way of not only making money, but also as a way to cope with and treat his depression.
I caught up with John after the event had broken up to ask him about his experiences of stigma, the fear of coming out and being open about his depression:
‘Guys are kind of brought up in this culture of emotional repression. So if you're struggling, it's almost like: a. you wouldn't want to admit it to yourself; and b. you certainly wouldn't want to talk to anyone else about it.
‘Especially when you're younger, you just think it's the least sexy thing to say: “Actually, I'm struggling to get through a day.” Who wants to hear that? So you just keep it to yourself.
‘That's why people like my books, I think, because they just empathise. They see things that they've had to go through in them, that's why they're almost grateful that I've written it, which is a great honour for me. It's a privilege to write for people, to express something that really may be deeply hidden in their lives.’
I then asked him to say a little bit about why he started to write fiction:
‘I started writing the fiction three years ago and I write incredibly quickly. I've written ten novels in 34 months, which is incredible, I know, it's part of my mania. I write them in two months and edit them and proofread them in a third month.
‘It is clear to me that this has been building up all my life, and that this is my time to do it. I'm like vomiting it all out, it's sort of projectile literary vomiting.
‘Part of that is the recognition that it's hard to sell a lot of books, of any one book. So if you have a lot of books and you sell a few of all of them, then that way you can make a living.'
I then asked John about the effect he has felt knowing that people read and respond to him books:
‘Being read, and being understood, is very therapeutic I think. It's very self-justifying, it helps you think that you're not a useless git. You just think that, “well, I've got something”.
‘The people who read them really do love them, and I hear from them every day and it's very touching.
‘It's a very intimate thing being a writer. There's only you and the reader in the room, so you're there with them, often in quite an intimate situation, they're sitting in bed sometimes, you know? And that's a sort of privilege I like to respect really. So for people to take time just to say, “I loved it”, is a beautiful thing.’
Written by Andy Revill
For more information on Action on Depression, visit their website.
For more information on John's writing or to purchase one of his books, visit his website.
When prisons appear on screen, they're often noisy places, all chatter, shouting, jangling, slamming. The prison in the popular imagination is a setting that bristles with aggressive energy. But 9999, filmed in Belgium's Merksplas prison, is an exceptionally quiet film. There is no music, speech is sparse and there are long shots in which nothing at all can be heard. It is also a very still film. The camera dwells at length on the prison's bleak exterior and its heavy doors; on a glimpse of bare trees outside, framed by bars; on a blank white wall, patterned with criss-cross shadows; on the blades of a fan, creeping round so slowly it is almost painful to watch.
There is no unifying narrative voice or interviewer's presence, and the only explanatory text comes at the beginning and end of the film. Five inmates are given space to speak of their lives, not as clear stories but in stops and starts, scraps and fragments. The camera spends minutes at a time dwelling on them too, standing silently against a wall, sitting in a chair or smoking a cigarette, sometimes looking into the camera, sometimes avoiding the intensity of its gaze. They are men diagnosed with mental illnesses that, in Belgian law, mean they cannot be held responsible for their crimes. With a shortage of resources in psychiatric care, they are not treated for their conditions but separated from society and detained indefinitely.
We do not learn the nature of all of their crimes, but the two that are disclosed represent the extreme poles of what is evidently a wide spectrum of transgression, their actions incomparable in scale and severity. One man admits to murdering his father and his grandfather, motivated, he says, by the fear they were going to have him institutionalised: ‘That was in the days of shock treatment. Horrible things happened in there…To keep me out of there, I murdered two people. Because I wanted to keep my life, I lost my life.’ The other was interned on the recommendation of a psychiatrist after setting a bicycle on fire while intoxicated.
The atmosphere that hangs most tangibly over the place is one of aching tedium. It's a claustrophobic film to watch, and it's supposed to be; the structure and style feels designed to replicate, in a small and inadequate way, the sense of blankness and grinding repetition that governs life in Merksplas. We watch people pacing or sitting vacantly in tiny rooms. ‘PETA should come and look at this cage. This cage is too small for me,’ says one man. ‘I have a crawl space with a loo. Two steps and I've reached the door. Two steps and you're on the loo. Day in, day out. Year in, year out.’ The film's title alludes to the crushing weight of living such a life without the prospect of freedom. With no access to proper psychiatric treatment, the prisoners have no official release date: the forms, as one man tells the camera, record the date of release as 31/12/9999. ‘It marks my entire life, this internment. That's how they can cut you down.’ He has been there, he says, for eight years.
It isn't all relentlessly bleak: amongst the tedium and the despair are small moments of warmth and humanity. In the only piece of music in the film, the young man who was imprisoned for burning a bicycle plays the piano; it pierces through the silence as if to insist that, even here, in the place that one inmate describes as ‘the septic tank of Belgium’, little corners of beauty can still exist. In another scene, an inmate asks: ‘How can an ugly thing like a worm turn into a pretty butterfly?’ ‘That's nature. The beauty of nature.’ ‘Can we come out of here transformed?’ ‘Is it possible?’ ‘Anything is possible in healthcare. You have to discover the beauty in people.’
It's a tender image of hope. But possibility itself isn't enough: like anything in nature, transformation cannot occur without the conditions to nurture it. To leave Merksplas, the inmates must demonstrate their mental health has improved, but as one of them rightly observes: ‘It will never improve under these circumstances. Only get worse…My mental health has not improved in 20 years. You tell me: how can my mental health improve here, between four walls, a crawl space with a loo, without any psychological support?’
This is not just a Belgian problem: in a post-film discussion, a representative from Positive Prison? Positive Futures... explained that more than 70% of the UK prison population have a diagnosable mental illness, and they are not getting the help they need, while prison suicide rates are almost 15 times that of the general population. What it largely comes down to, of course, is money: proper psychiatric care is more expensive than imprisonment, and efficiency is winning out over empathy. It is not a simple problem to solve, but films like 9999, by giving us a glimpse into the conditions of lives without hope, can help give empathy a louder voice.
Written by Shona McCombes