David Pollock looks at art's ability to help us stop worrying, stop judging and start speaking
If you're lucky enough to catch Doug Stanhope on tour this autumn you'll see evidence of a new wave of forthrightness regarding mental health issues in action. He mentions his partner's condition and questions individuals in the audience on their own. Steaming into the issue of mass shootings in America, he demands to know why certain issues of the mind – learning difficulties, for example – gather sympathy and support, while others which are less visible earn their bearer dismissal as a 'wacko'. When Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in 2011, he says, was that a big surprise when her home state of Arizona was ranked second lowest in the US for the treatment of mental health sufferers (it's now the lowest)?
When you write about art – or about anything – you look for currents, and this is one which appears to be growing. A press release for the Mental Health Foundation's Gala for Mental Health during the Edinburgh Festival pointed this out, noting that it seemed to be a hot-button issue in Edinburgh this year, and that perhaps this had something to do with Robin Williams' suicide. One of a number of works to explore the subject during August was Bryony Kimmings and her partner Tim Grayburn's Fake It 'Til You Make It, about the macho conceits which see many men unwilling to discuss their state of mind.
A few weeks later the subject came into sharper focus via Twitter; through Benga, the pioneering Croydon dubstep producer and one third of Magnetic Man, who retired from music in early 2014. He had decided to speak out. 'I'm asked so much about my retirement,' he said in a series of tweets on 16 Sep. 'I might as well explain it on here.'
Everyone reading those tweets should have recognised their bravery. 'This industry is all about perception,' Benga told the Guardian a couple of weeks later. 'We have a [party] culture where it's not about having fun, it's about outdoing your mates and going on unnecessary benders. If I'd heard of more cases it would've made me think more about what I was consuming.' His words make powerful reading.
It's the point Kimmings makes in her show, and many mental health campaigns seek to drive home; that not being afraid to discuss and destigmatise what we and others are feeling is an important step in combatting mental illness. Jeremy Corbyn, of course, has appointed the first Shadow Minister for Mental Health in the UK, which is a good start (if a contentious one in terms of where it positions mental health issues alongside physical health issues).
And so we come to the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, a regular fixture on the Scottish arts calendar, which runs from World Mental Health Day until the end of October. This month will feature the work of musician RM Hubbert (performing he and Wounded Knee's Easterhouse Conversations at Platform in Glasgow) and poet Jenny Lindsay (at she and BBC Scotland Poet in Residence Rachel McCrum's Rally & Broad spoken word night), both of whom have spoken eloquently of their own depression before.
Playwright Mike Kenny and poet Julie Boden's piece Cracked explores the onset of psychosis, and director Cora Bissett's (Roadkill, Rites) physical and dance piece In Her Shadows recreates the experience of depression. Linda Duncan McLaughlin's play Descent looks at a relationship marred by dementia, and there are some edgy, insightful documentaries on show; Ida's Diary is a Norwegian film which sees the subject recording her own struggle with Borderline Personality Disorder, and Ellen Vermeulen's 9999 brings to life Belgium's unfocused response to mentally ill criminals.
One particularly exciting piece (I may be personalising) is Michael John McCarthy's Turntable, which invites the audience to play their favourite music and discuss what it means to them. It feels like something of a sea change is in effect; like at last the message is getting through that other's problems aren't just an abstract. Everyone will have their own tipping point into empathy, particularly those who haven't yet had cause to think about their state of mind or that of those close to them. That's what art does, or one of the things – it's in seeing an experience relayed to us in human terms that we begin to really understand, and then we can stop worrying, stop judging and start speaking.