Talking Heads

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.

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

A crowd of us gathered in the Great Hall at Edinburgh Castle on Thu 19 Oct to enjoy an evening of music, poetry and spoken word with the Scottish Poetry Library, Strange Town Theatre Company and NHS Lothian. 

Major General M L Riddell-Webster CBE DSO, Governor of Edinburgh Castle, welcomed us to the evening’s proceedings and provided food for thought by suggesting that whilst war continues, we continue to damage people as well as kill them. That set the tone for an evening that successfully combined entertainment with reflection on how we help those with trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. 

The evening began with violinist Thoren Ferguson playing a beautiful song of his own composition called ‘The Somme’, on a violin made by Steve Burnett, an Edinburgh based maker of violins, violas and cellos. Steve is interested in trees with a connection to local and historical figures, and has made, for example, a ‘Sherlock’ violin using a tree from Arthur Conan Doyle’s garden. 

Steve had wanted for many years to make a Wilfred Owen violin and the opportunity arose to use a branch from a sycamore tree in the Craiglockhart campus at Edinburgh Napier University, the site of the former hospital where many WWI officers, including Owen, recuperated. By August 2014, the violin was completed, and it has been followed by a Siegfried Sassoon violin and a Robert Graves violin made from the same large branch, after a local historian discovered that all three poets had met together at Baberton Golf Club in Edinburgh. 

Colin Waters from the Scottish Poetry Library, part of the committee for Wilfred Owen’s Edinburgh 1917-2017, shared a detailed account of when Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon met in Edinburgh in 1917. He explained how Craiglockhart Hospital was a hugely significant place in the treatment of shell-shock, particularly the talking cure pioneered by two doctors, Dr Brock and Dr Rivers, in this centre of medical innovation. The work of these two men continues to be hugely influential in our treatment of PTSD and trauma. Colin Waters also discussed the way in which Owen’s time in Edinburgh helped him develop into a great war poet and argued that Owen’s war poetry is a key influence on how we view WWI to this day. 

A selection of poems was read throughout the evening by three talented performers from Strange Town Theatre Company. Naturally, these included several Owen poems but also poems by Siegfried Sassoon, E. Alan Mackintosh and Charles Hamilton Sorley. 

Further poetry was read by Tracey Harvey, a mental health nurse of nearly 20 years. She shared two poems that she had written: ‘Civvy Street’, dedicated to veterans and ,Thru’ the wa’’, dedicated to traumatised women. ‘Thru’ the wa’’ was a beautiful poem about loneliness and what neighbours mean to each other. Tracey also read a poem called ‘Describing Indescribable’ by veteran Kev “Weeman” Walker which detailed some of the horror of war in a very visceral and unflinching manner. 

The final speaker of the night was Linda Irvine from NHS Lothian. She spoke about the work of Veterans First Point (V1P), a new and growing Scottish charity that has been set up to provide support for veterans in a one-stop shop, as part of the NHS. The idea for the charity began when Linda met with a group of veterans in 2008 and they spoke about wanting to be heard and understood. 

V1P is set up around three central principles: Credibility, Coordination and Accessibility, and it is a unique service in that it employs veterans to act as peer support workers. The importance of a charity such as V1P was clear from some of the statistics that Linda shared with us. For example, 15% of those accessing V1P Scotland services consider their current living situation unstable and 37% have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives. The initial problems that veterans report when first accessing the service are that 77 % suffer from anxiety and depression, and that 50% experience pain every day. In September this year, the Scottish Government committed to providing 50% of the funding for the V1P centres across Scotland; an acknowledgement of the excellent work they are doing. 

This was an evening that inspired real thought about what we do for veterans, how it is informed by the past, and the role that art such as poetry and music can play in expressing the horror of war. 

by Rachel Alexander 

Rachel is 35 and lives in Edinburgh. Interested in writing, feminism and mental health, she’s an English teacher to trade, and passionate about learning as well as teaching. She loves stories of all kinds, and believes they are a uniquely powerful way of changing the world. Follow her on Twitter at @rachalexwrites and Instagram at @rachjanealex

To find out more about the remarkable story of the Wilfred Owen violin, read this article at The Herald.

“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.

Talking about Rainbow Families was run by the Rainbow Families Project. Jules works for LGBT Health & Wellbeing and can be contacted on 0131 523 1104 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

In 2016-17, 34,100 homeless applications were made in Scotland. On Any Given Night gives a stage to the faces and personalities behind these numbers, forcing us to look beyond the figures and ask why this is still the case. 

The play introduces its audience to an energetic foursome spending a night on an unnamed Glasgow street. Stevie (Liam Lambie), David (Ross McAree), Moira (Clare Rooney) and Hannah (Laura Lovemore) are an unlikely group of friends held together by their situation. Their homelessness is explained in the context of their own lives and those who weave in and – more often than not – out of contact with them. This simple meeting allows us to think about broad themes such as depression, addiction, feminism and hope. 

For Lambie, the play’s writer and lead actor, this is central to its success: 

“I wanted to focus on the struggles these people face, both on the streets and on the journey that led them there. It's so easy to place blame on them for their situation, but hasn't everyone been down on their luck? And doesn't the blame lie with us as a society who ignores the struggle of these people and either don't think to or choose not to help?” 

This humanity is central to the drama. Each actor brings to their role a believability and energy that resonates throughout the audience. Every person I spoke to during the interval related to something on stage. But this is no pity party. These are believable characters that demand respect as well as sympathy. 

The production avoids a common mistake of much politically charged theatre – making things too comfortable. It highlights the key problem within society by first foregrounding the response of the audience. 

The first act is held together by Lambie’s jam-packed script. The characters riff off one another with a never-ending stream of typically Glaswegian insults and humour. The audience is relating to them and laughing with them. By the second half we are directly asked why, if we are so similar, are we comfortable with passing their real-life counterparts on the street? 

The acting is extremely high quality, with each person on stage tackling this weighty play with humour, energy and personality. Director Glynis Wozniak, whose management of a complex script and a last-minute change in cast is impressive, also plays a witty cameo. 

Compelling and thought-provoking, On Any Given Night deserves a wide audience and its message would translate to any city in the UK. 

by Kirsty Strang-Roy