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.
We are fortunate enough to live in a country that is rarely affected by natural disaster. When Storm Brian rattled our window frames last month, the internet was abundant in memes joking that a storm named Brian sounded “like the nicest hurricane ever” who might kindly mow your lawn or blow the leaves into a neat pile. Instead, one of the greatest threats to the livelihood of Scotland’s youth is a less tangible catastrophe; mental illness. It swarms around us like a nest of disgruntled wasps, threatening to sting without discrimination, an intimidating obstacle to the path ahead.
For young people in Scotland suffering from mental health issues the future does not evoke feelings of hope nor excitement; it is a terrifying and dark expanse that lies in wait. As children, we dream of what we want to be when we grow up; firefighters, actors, doctors, sporting legends. We are told that we can be whoever and whatever we want to be, if only we put our minds to it. But when mental health affects your daily life and your brain works against you, not for you, what were once possibilities can seem like impossibilities.
The number of suicides in Scotland rose by 8% from 2015-2016, yet barriers such as stigma and a lack of resources are keeping us from halting this disturbing increase. But Create Paisley is a platform and network working towards making the future a reality again for young people in Scotland, regaining control of mental illness in ways that cannot be resisted like an antibiotic.
They put on regular Create Café nights, where 12-21 year olds are welcome to participate actively or passively, in a haven of open minds among an understanding cohort. They provide mechanisms of expression and communication through the arts and establish community amongst people who so desperately need support and the motivation to keep going, to achieve; even if not in the way they originally imagined. They have created programmes run by professionals to encourage creativity as a means to progress; inspiring Scotland’s youth to explore skill sets which can transport you not only across the world but away from the turmoil of your own mind.
The arts are proving to be a potent prescription and are made accessible to many, thanks to volunteers at Create Paisley. Through writing, the thoughts that scramble around in your head can be put down on paper; altered, abbreviated, added to and arranged, settling into sensical sentences. Expressive writing has proven to have both emotional and physical health benefits in trauma survivors and those suffering from psychiatric disorders. Music has been shown to reduce heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure and a depressive mood. It can stimulate you on a neurological level to alter mental states and may even increase response to antidepressants. Filmmaking, photography and art are also on the menu.
You cannot always see issues with mental health; there are no blood tests to prove it or vaccines against it. But in boosting creativity we not only provide sufferers with an antidote that is in itself enjoyable, we are using a language that is more communicable and less abrasive to a wider audience. Bit by bit the constricting mould of mental health is breaking, and the future glistens on the horizon once more.
by Mimi Dickson
It is impossible to offer a universal truth to ‘this is what depression feels or looks like’, as the experience of the illness is unique to a person’s individual circumstances. Yet Duvet Day is a piece of dance theatre which can powerfully resonate with people who have experienced depressive episodes and it offers an insight to those with little knowledge of mental ill health.
The performance is a collaborative project between Claire Pritchard and Olga Kay who began working together in 2015 as C&O Dance. Performed in the Old Lab at Summerhall and with a stage set-up with the front row sitting on cushions, Duvet Day pulls a public audience into a private and lonely experience of depression. A cosy, relaxing image of a duvet day is shattered by an unapologetically honest and raw snapshot into how a bed can become a place of restlessness, discomfort and struggle.
On the surface, combining dance and the theme of depression seem to be combining polar opposites: the feeling of not being able to move with an activity which requires the body to move. However, the combination validates depression as an illness which manifests physically in its power to limit movement and restrict capacity to leave a space. Through the choreography, depression is physically explored and represented as something which changes bodies and interaction with the physical environment. This challenges the idea of depression being considered an “invisible illness” and a condition which is far-removed from physical health.
The dancers portray the stillness and heaviness of depression in their physical movement and the use of blankets and pillows as props become the markers of the space they are trapped in. In parts of the piece, they surrender to the bed through pressing into the pillows and burrowing underneath blankets. The stiff, slow movements reflecting the lethargic effects of being in bed are interspersed with the attempts to move, to turn, to escape, to reach up again and again after falling back into bed and into the clutches of depression.
A Q&A session followed the performance and this space allowed the audience to hear from Claire and Olga on how their personal experiences inform their creative process and their intention to promote dialogue on mental health. The dancers shared their journey in creating pieces where they are fundamentally honest with themselves and the audience. This means being able to bring their moods and experiences into choreography and not censoring and stopping their bodies from moving with how they feel.
Duvet Day is uplifting in that the performance thwarts harmful misconceptions that people can have about depression. Comments such as “But why can’t you get up?” “How can you be tired?” “Staying in bed won’t make you feel better” can only appear blatantly inappropriate and insensitive in the face of this performance. It is an open insight into the experience of constantly resisting depression and it is validation that depression can be completely debilitating. The experiences of how mental ill heath affects the physical body and artists being allowed to be honest in how their experiences shape their work both need wider recognition and support.
by Z Nugent
Every year, the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival (SMHAF) has a theme, and this year’s theme was Reclaim. For me, Reclaim is about getting back some part of life that has been lost, maybe through illness or trauma, where people are looking to reclaim some independence.
This year's events focussed on topics like overcoming addiction, the art of the written word to convey how we feel and think, how music and dance supports mental health wellbeing and recovery, and the way people cope against the adversity of different mental health conditions.
People from all walks of life were covered in this year’s SMHAF events, from the working man and woman, to a Hollywood icon, teenagers on the cusp of adulthood struggling with their identity, those with a disability trying to make their voice heard, and those who had lived, and died, through the trauma of addiction.
I went along to an event at Paisley Town Hall called Making Our Mark, an inclusive session led by community arts projects in Renfrewshire, including Limelight Music and Dirty Feet Dance company. These projects give a platform to talented performers with a disability to not only express themselves but to showcase their talents and the work that goes into their performances. A crucial part of mental wellbeing for those with a disability, I feel, is not just self-expression, but gaining respect and recognition for ability, rather than a perception of disability.
I also attended an event at St Matthew's Church, Paisley called Dykebar and Me, a screening of a film made by men from the Lifeline Recovery Group in Renfrewshire about their stories of alcoholism, addiction, struggle and recovery. Afterwards, there was a Q&A with some of men who took part in the film, and as part of the Talking Heads project I recorded this interview with them.
As much of their adult lives has been consumed by alcohol addiction, these men had lost all contact with their families and their journey towards reclaiming began when they took those first steps into recovery. Many of them have been sober for up to 20 years, and some less than two years. Several have relapsed a number of times, and sadly one man passed away after being sober for over six years.
What I've taken away from the time I spent at events at SMHAF is that mental health doesn't just affect any one type of person, it affects everyone, of all ages, races and backgrounds. Reclaim is the common theme, not just for this festival, but in life. It is important for society to continue to challenge, question and change the perception of mental health issues, and to champion all forms of support, progress and initiatives in promoting wellbeing.
by Michael McEwan
Michael has a learning disability and is a motivational speaker who talks about challenge, stigma and his own experiences finding employment. He previously worked for the Scottish Consortium for Learning Disabilities (SCLD), presenting to organisations including the Scottish Government and the National Autistic Society. Find out more on his website.
“If we want to have authentic relationships with our children, we have to learn to use our words.”
As the parent of a gender non-conforming child, and an Aunty/Ally to my transgender niece, I wasn’t sure what to expect of the ‘Talking About Rainbow Families’ workshop, but I knew I had to go along. We’ve been lucky as a family, with support from relatives, our school and the wider community, but there isn’t anyone else at primary school going through our parenting experiences.
We were welcomed into the kooky space in central Edinburgh, and encouraged to utilise the best-stocked snacks and drinks table I have ever seen. Volunteers buzzed around with name tags, our facilitators – Jules and Tracey – were friendly, and so was everyone there, as you would expect.
But still, we talked in detail about what a safe space meant. How this was a safe space. How, if we met the people from this workshop somewhere else, we should remember that everything said in this room remained confidential. Check in with ourselves before making a comment: would it be helpful? Was it related to our own experience? We were asked to be careful with language and labels. Despite all this, I managed to make a comment about home education that could have come across as derogatory – fortunately for me, the home educator in the room was very understanding and accepted my apology later!
Our safe space created, we were asked to provide information on the ages of children we were caregivers to (which ranged from 0-18), who we were (parents, prospective parents, and teachers, amongst others), and the sort of things we wanted to be able to talk to children about.
Once written up, our list, which included themes such as ‘Equality/Diversity’ (‘that’ll take ten minutes,’ Jules joked), ‘Resilience’ and ‘Bullying,’ stretched across two flip chart sheets.
In our first group exercise, we were asked to work with the people sitting around us and discuss the reasons for not talking to children. Reasons we wouldn’t, hadn’t, didn’t. In feedback, we filled up another whole sheet with reasons, ranging from ‘because they are not our children,’ to ‘fear of what other people might think.’
Jules challenged us all with gentle questions and statements that were nonetheless rigorous. Mind blowing. Why does a parent’s fear outweigh a child’s isolation? If we want to have authentic relationships with our children, we will have to learn how to use our words. Where there is fear, there is shame. Have we tried ‘framing everything in pride?’ Using phrases like ‘other people might not know about this stuff, yet, but you do, because our family is different. Our family is epic.’
A much-needed break gave us time to fire back into the snacks, and digest what we’d heard so far.
In the second part of the afternoon, we talked about specific resources that could be helpful. That our teenagers could attend the InfiniT Group, part of LGBT Youth Scotland, and that Mermaids meet ups were suitable for all ages. That there is an LGBT Human Library. That schools can contact LGBT Youth Scotland direct, join the LGBT Charter, or look into the TIE campaign and their assemblies, provided free of charge. That, if we wanted to leave our email addresses, we could create our own network.
For the final part of the workshop, we were put into themed groups (parents of trans/gender queer children, same sex parents, caregivers and professionals) and given the task of thinking about what difficult conversations between ourselves and our children might look like. But those questions didn’t fit in with our group’s experience, so we had a more general chat, which was fine. But the value of having that kind of talk, with other parents going through the same hopes, fears and hesitations? I left feeling as if a weight on my shoulders was now shared.
by Stella Hervey-Birrell
Stella’s first novel, How Many Wrongs make a Mr Right? explores mental health recovery and was published by Crooked Cat Books in 2016. Shorter works have appeared in various places including The Guardian, and The Dangerous Woman Project. She blogs at #atinylife140, tweets at @atinylife140, Instagrams as Stella_hb and can be found on Facebook.