'It's a noticeable sea change': how the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival continues to tackle the stigma around mental health

Mind over matter / Change of mind

Though This Be Madness

SMHAF has a new spring slot and a greater platform than ever before. We spoke to curator Andrew Eaton-Lewis and some of the performers to find out what's in store

With the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival moving earlier in the year, organisers have had to contend with organising two festivals within the space of barely six months. Given this logistical headache, the plan had originally been to scale the number of theatre shows they were programming back. Yet what they hadn't contended with was the boom in new shows dealing with issues of mental health, many of which they had been involved with before, many of which were touring while the festival was on. It seemed foolish not to get them all involved.

'When we invited people to submit entries for the first Mental Health Fringe Award at the Edinburgh Festival last year, over 60 shows got in touch within a couple of weeks,' says SMHAF's arts lead Andrew Eaton-Lewis. 'We didn't have to seek people out, they all came to us. It's a noticeable sea change.' As 2018 is the Year of Young People in Scotland, many of this year's theatre events at SMHAF have very neatly formed themselves around the theme of 'Beginnings'.

'Early years mental health is something we've wanted to focus on for a while now,' says Eaton-Lewis. 'Research suggests that 50% of adult mental health problems begin in childhood, and there's also been a lot of research and media coverage in recent years that suggests today's children and young people are facing all kinds of mental health challenges, and often there aren't nearly enough resources available to support them.'

Last year's inaugural Mental Health Award winner will be showing during the festival; Mental by Kane Power is a piece which examines the postnatal depression his mother experienced when he was five, which has since developed into episodes of mania, psychosis and anxiety. 'The show offers an insight into one family's experience of a mental illness,' says Power. 'Through song, movement, medical notes and anecdotes, we try to create a sense of my mum's bipolar experience, and the effect it's had on me.

'My mum has been incredibly open in sharing so much for the show. Some of it I know she'd prefer not to, but she also knows that if the audience are going to leave with a better understanding of mental illness the truth can be powerful, so we've tried our best to remain honest, despite the difficulties. I perform it, with intermittent voice recordings of my mum through voicemails she left during her most recent episode.'

Mind over matter / Change of mind

Fisk / credit: Jens Peter Engedal
Though This Be Madness by Skye Loneragan (a Fringe First winner for Cracked, which explored schizophrenia through her own father's illness) will premiere at SMHAF and is currently being written. It draws on her own experience as a sleep-deprived new mother to explore, through poetry, performance and physical theatre, the state of mind this period brings.

'It was conceived as a piece about how we might "diagnose" Shakespeare's characters today,' she says, 'and it's evolved to question what we really mean when we talk about something being "crazy", particularly in relationship to women. I'm wondering what daily delusions we all subscribe to and, given this "crazy" world – especially when it comes to how we consume and what climate challenges await us – how we can best nurture our collective sanity.'

Meanwhile, Sophie Winter's Don't Panic! It's Challenge Anneka returns after appearing at the Fringe in 2016, and it takes the artist back to her own childhood hero Anneka Rice, whose television show represented its star as the epitome of capable womanhood. Researched through interviews and Winter's own experience, it explores loneliness, isolation, self-medication and the anxiety Winter has suffered since she was 15.

'I remember going to the doctor about it when I was 17 and being sent on my way with a pocket full of Prozac,' she says. 'There didn't seem to be a way of talking about mental illness then, so the show encourages people to, and it encourages people who don't know about anxiety to ask questions and be open and understanding. When my parents saw it, suddenly everything started to make sense to them – before they found it very hard to talk about mental well-being and now they're huge advocates of talking about mental health, which was quite an amazing moment.'

These aren't the only shows which will be playing. 'Amy Conway's Super Awesome World draws on Amy's childhood love of computer games to talk about living with depression,' says Eaton-Lewis. 'Fisk by Tortoise in a Nutshell is, on one level, about trying to care for someone with depression, except that it's told as a kind of surreal love story between a man and a fish. It's more abstract and often purely visual, like a living painting. Turntable by MJ McCarthy, meanwhile, is an exploration of the power of music to make connections between people, in which the audience's own favourite songs and memories are as important as anything.

'Mental health can be a hard sell,' he continues. 'Some people assume it's going to be quite bleak or worthy, but in my time at SMHAF I've seen shows with funny songs, games with balloons, aerial performance, dancing, talking fish, and a lot of them are playing to sell-out crowds. I get the impression that stigma around mental health is gradually decreasing and people are more willing to go and see work like this, so more artists are interested in making it. It's been really interesting to watch, and has certainly impacted on how we think about the festival going forward.'

Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival

Mental illness affects individuals from all walks of life, regardless of age, background or circumstance. Despite this, a harmful stigma often prevents it from being acknowledged and discussed openly, particularly within public spaces. For over a decade, the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival has worked to reduce…

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