Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Changing Minds at Southbank: Mental Health Arts Festival

RCA Design Interaction student Jinhee Park rearranging her 'Solitude' installation

After a very, very, very long hiatus from blogging, I haven't felt this eager to review an event as I did with 'Changing Minds', Southbank Centre's first ever mental health themed arts festival, held last weekend.

Here's the context: I'm passionate about and have been semi-involved in the 'Mental Health x Arts' space, ever since I'd volunteered as a ceramics technician for a mental health rehab project - of which I was once an attendee.

Was this a watershed moment in changing public perceptions towards mental health (or MH for brevity's sake)? Perhaps I have been conditioned by self-stigmatisation for too long, but I believe there exists an acceptable belief of which people with mental health problems are not 'normal' and should be locked up in order to not become a 'burden' on society. Not necessarily because those in power are inherently nasty, but due to the lack of empathy and not knowing or understanding how they can help.

In popular culture and the media, we are rarely short of sensational headlines on the relationship between genius, creativity and madness - The talented, lonely voice-hearing artist who cut off his ear and drank himself to death. The promising, rich but disturbed actor addicted to drugs and prostitutes. The young, depressed penniless writer who committed suicide before her works became famous. I am skeptical towards such grossly oversimplified 'tortured artistic' stereotypes, which appear to glamourise and make light of the debilitating reality of mental illness. But I do admit there is something inherently cathartic about deploying creativity to express the more socially taboo, inexplicable aspects of it.

Our CM (short for 'Changing Minds') journey began with a back-to-back Saturday of curious talks, in the company of two good friends. "I wonder what the demographic for an event like this is?", one of them asked me. What a brilliant question indeed! Yes, who are these people who are willing to pay money for a festival dedicated to lunacy? This kind of thing would be inconceivable in Hong Kong, where I was raised, and in most conservative Asian cultures where mental illness is heavily stigmatised and rarely discussed in mainstream media - let alone celebrated in such a liberal manner.

Wise words by Lotje Sodderland

The first 'rock-and-a-hard-place' choice for us was deciding which simultaneous talks to attend. Whether it was designed intentionally or not to relieve of triggering one's OCD, eliminating the option of 'hedging bets' turned out to be a blessing, because it meant by default no two experiences were the same. We'd created our unique, personalised CM journey. This felt like a perfect metaphor for describing the very nature of having a mental health problem. It is so common (the "1-in-4" statistic was heard loud and clear throughout the event), yet so subjective. What we are capable of communicating, using art or otherwise, is limited to only what we are consciously aware of at that given moment. If there's anything I've learned, it's that despite advances in science (as revealed in the fascinating 'What's in Your Head' latest neuroscience findings panel), there is so much we don't understand about our brains. It's crucial for us to acknowledge this; to not give up on trying to learn about, rather than judge others, as Southbank's Artistic Director Jude Kelly reminded us.

Anyway, back to business, the opening talk was provided by heads of the country's most well-respected MH charities and campaigns - Mind, Rethink Mental Illness and Time to Change. I was impressed by how frank the speakers were on sharing their personal experiences of MH, but more intrigued to learn how the language used to describe MH had evolved historically, as explained by Paul Farmer (Mind's CEO). From the Victorian twisty road origins to the saying "round the bend", to Mind having started out as a merger of associations advocating 'social hygiene' practices on the deemed 'mentally deficient' after the Second World War. Thankfully we've come a long way since such terminology. MH is the new rock'n roll... or food.

Is it too optimistic to imagine a world where having and talking about it is normalised? During the discussion 'Misunderstanding Mental Illness', artist and Mind ambassador Stuart Semple said, "20 years ago we'd all be smoking here in this room. 10 years ago we'd be debating about racism or sexism. 40 years ago homosexuality was illegal in America. Now we have same-sex marriages. It shows change can happen."

"But how can we encourage someone who finds it hard to talk, to talk about it?" asked my friend. I was unexpectedly inspired by the thoughtful questions from the audience, who were as engaging as the some of the speakers themselves. These included MH sufferers, carers, friends, family of those affected and professionals from charity workers, neuroscience students to psychologists and psychiatrists. One woman, a Newham resident raised the issue of needing more physical as well as virtual safe spaces to talk about MH, as disability hate crime is a problem in her catchment area. That hit home in remembering it's not just those who can afford access to a computer and internet who are vulnerable to abuse, discrimination and lack support. One doctor brought up the importance of education from a young age; arguing MH should a critical part of the national curriculum. "We are all taught how to look after our physical health from an early age but not about our mental health", Semple added.

Idea from the 'Room for Alternative' open workshop and exhibition, conceived by RCA students Ted Hunt and Peter Hudson

As the weekend of talks and creative experiments progressed, I realised I shared many thoughts and feelings of living with mental illness with other people. I left mentally equipped with positive messages I could use to fight against self stigma and most importantly, make it easier to start a discussion on MH - which is often the beginning of longstanding change. Here are a couple that struck a chord. 

"Love and care can make a difference. We need to start talking about it as a community." 

Attika Choudhary, journalist and creator of short film 'Depression in the South Asian Community: The Hidden Illness'

"Be experts in vulnerability." 

Lotje Sodderland, filmmaker of Netflix documentary 'My Beautiful Broken Brain'

"Don't do anything drastic. Not everyone deserves to hear your innermost thoughts." 

Rob Delaney, comedian and writer of TV series 'Catastrophe' 

You're welcome.

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