June 4, 2013

MarianFor a mental health activist like me it was but one short step to join Time to Change as a Champion. I'd been working at the cutting edge of the survivor movement since 2001, first as editor of a north-eastern mental health hospital's wellbeing magazine and then as chairman of an anti-stigma campaign in Sunderland. I had also served my time at national level as a service user adviser/lecturer for the government-funded Shift anti-stigma campaign.

I then simply flowed onwards and upwards (as one sometimes does) to start my own wellbeing consultancy in 2008 and then to becoming an elected governor on the Council of Governors of the Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust in 2011. My gains in confidence and self-esteem have amazed even me and are rather neatly summed up by another activist, Maya Angelou, who said, "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

I've been mulling this over for a while now and, whilst working the room at a Time to Change event in Newcastle, I formulated a rather grandiose plan to help shape a new future. My plan embraces values plucked straight from Positive Psychology or the Science of Happiness. These are concepts around joy, bliss, presence, grace, patience, courage, integration, peace, tenderness, beauty, compassion, love, laughter, vitality ...

I leave you to join the dots in this rather lengthy (and unlikely) introduction to the Time to Change blogging event held in the Newcastle and Gateshead Art Studio. It's a challenging introduction maybe, but one paving the way for discussions around some very different, but equally worthy organisations whose supporters were involved up-to-the-hilt in today's event: Time to Change (TTC), Newcastle & Gateshead Art Studio (N&GAS), and Altering Images of Mentality (AIM).

It's Time to Talk

And, talk we did. Mental health problems are common. One in four of us will be affected in our life-time, so being able to talk about it is something that's important for all of us. And, you don't need to be an expert to join the conversation. Here are a few tips worth noting from Time to Change, the national charity who funded today's event in Newcastle.

  • Take one step at a time. Be open-minded.
  • People's experiences of mental health differ. Listen carefully and be there for them
  • Don't confine yourself to mental health talk. Still talk about things you've always talked about.
  • Courage is contagious. Once mental health is out in the open, others will want to talk, too

As happens from time-to-time, the book which fell out of my bookcase and into my hands this very day gave me cause to reflect on the virtue of living deeply, for that's what the assembly of people were doing at this blogging event where the creative mind of the artist was in plain sight.

This aside, as befitting a busy art studio, the place was awash with colour presenting an invitation to all to blog - alone or together. And, this was to be blogging in its breadth, width, height, and depth; an open invitation to blog in words, music, poetry, video, photography, and by drawing and/or painting. I loved the busy-ness of the occasion, its organic flow, and (most of all) the naturalness of the people I met - some old friends, but most delightfully new.

For instance, in this latter category there was the gentleman from AIM who recognised me from a Mental Health First Aid training video and who knew my story of coping with schizophrenia. Then there was the young professional man to whom I also spoke at length. He was coming to terms with a time of emotional trauma which had cost him his livelihood and left him seriously bereft in all aspects of his life. Later in the day, I was to enter in to the roller-coaster lives of two men made redundant from their jobs and who expressed gratitude to all at Tyneside Mind for their help and support in good times and bad.

All were involved in one way or another in picking up the pieces of their shattered lives in the seriously unforgiving economic climate of North East England. Thank you Time to Change for appearing on the scene. You are worth your weight in gold. And, by the way, the full title of the book which fell out of my bookcase is Living Deeply: the art and science of transformation in everyday life by Marilyn Mandala et al. This reminds me that my advice to would-be bloggers is read, read, read!

The master's hand!

To continue. There's something sacred about entering a space such as an art studio. It is vibrant, bursting with life, and so full-on with colour and imagery that it fair takes your breath away. The magnificence of it all touches me and I am left in awe.

Bearing in mind this caution, one which all might do well to heed,

The moving finger writes and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it. - Omar Khayyam

I start by playing safe and quoting directly from the Newcastle & Gateshead Art Studio's leaflet. From this I learn that N&GAS is an organisation which is about, '... creatively improving mental health by offering a service aimed at enhancing the quality of life, wellbeing and social engagement of members. Provision is for those who are, or are at risk of, experiencing mental health problems and other forms of social exclusion within their communities'.

N&GAS provides fully equipped art and music facilities for its members. Activities include drawing, painting, pottery, printmaking, creative writing and photography, in addition to having IT and music for members to explore. All activities are supported and delivered by Creative Professionals in their area of expertise.

Of great significance for me is the aim of N&GAS which is to encourage members to try new things, form friendships, improve existing skills and both mix in groups and work independently. I can thus cheerfully report back to those who assess the worthiness of such organisations (and events) that I was greatly impressed and feel that I speak for all who gathered together at N&GAS on Friday 5 April 2013 when I say, this was, indeed, the Master's hand at work.

Storytelling

Poverty, brokenness, and suffering were familiar to every person in the room. I know because I too have been there; I too have wrestled with my shadow self; I too have experienced emptiness and loneliness. I know all about stigma. I too have been labelled and lived to tell the tale.

It would be inappropriate to say more about the painful, often heart-breaking stories I heard - other than, together, we experienced first-hand the power of peer support (love), the power of community (love), and the power of healing (love). All this in a Newcastle art studio at a Time to Change blog-in. Who would have thought ... ?

It remains only to add that, "Learning in the September of one’s life is exhilarating because of the vast perspective that years of lived experience provide. Maturity achieved is an unspoken yet glaring declaration not only that one has lived, but also that one has learned from the experience." Charles D Hayes - University of Self.

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What are Time to Change Champions?

Time to Change Champions are people with lived experience of mental health problems (including carers) who campaign to end mental health discrimination in their communities.

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