Turning stigma into a source of inspiration

Exclusive report by Gabriella White

English Film Director Graeme Smith, David Miliband MP and MHFF’s Tania Henzell filming at the Customs House, South Shields for England's first ever Mental Health Film Festival.


ENGLAND’s first ever film festival for mental health took place this summer on 15th June 2011 in South Shields in Tyne and Wear. MP for the region David Miliband shared a special message with the audience as the festival commenced. The event was also supported by Northumbria University and actor Tim Healy.

Showcasing three short films directed by film-producer Graeme Smith, himself a mental health sufferer; these case studies revolve around three adolescent cases, who were diagnosed with some kind of psychosis. The sensitive subject matter was compelling to say the least, as all documentaries were reconstructed with real-life characters together with their families. Smith provided an excellent insight into the intense, challenging experiences, by directing each documentary in such a way that the audience were drawn into the horror of what the patient was experiencing at their worst hour of a psychotic episode. Disturbing in parts, but necessary for the nation to see and perhaps imagine for a moment what it could be like to suffer from psychosis or indeed any mental health issue. It certainly opened my eyes to how reality and fantasy combine to create a false reality for the mental health sufferer.

Today, the stigma and embarrassment attached to mental health problems continues in society and it is because of this that the Film Festival for Mental Health is somewhat revolutionary, educational and above all imperative. In the UK alone, 1 in 4 people are affected by mental health issues at some point in their lives. Most families are therefore likely to encounter a mental health problem, whether it be the individual themselves, a family member, or someone they know; a friend, even. Stresses of life, however great or small can trigger depression, mental struggle and even psychosis. The longer these conditions or symptoms remain undetected, the more increased the chances of a chemical imbalance spiralling out of control are and the more difficult recovery becomes. Early signs of psychosis are often missed. Friends, family, teachers and colleagues may see worrying changes or behaviours but aren’t sure how best to support or intervene. Studies by Goldberg D. & Huxley P. reveal that as many as 300 people out of 1000 will experience mental health problems every year in Britain; 230 of these will visit a GP; 102 of these will be diagnosed as having a mental health problem; 24 of these will be referred to a specialist psychiatric service and just 6 of these will become inpatients in psychiatric hospitals.

The social implications of such an ordeal are heavily underestimated. Studies by the Social Inclusion Unit show that Stigma and discrimination experienced by people with mental health problems are the biggest barriers to social inclusion, making it difficult for people to work, access health services, participate in their communities and enjoy family life. 83% identified stigma as a key issue, whilst 55% identified stigma as a barrier to employment. More than half mentioned negative attitudes towards mental health in the community.

In his striking introduction to this pioneering Film Festival, Miliband declared “It is no longer an option to brush this under the carpet. This event is about turning stigma into a source of inspiration.”  Dealing with the stigma through use of light comedy, director Smith played a psychosis advert entitled “hearing voices” three times over. As he returned to the stage to introduce the first film of the day, he joked “Sorry folks – I couldn’t help but play the advert three times over; it’s because of my OCD.” About 1 in every 50 people reportedly suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. That adds up to about 1 million people and that is just in the UK alone. OCD consists of three main elements: thoughts that make you anxious (obsessions), the anxiety one feels and finally the things done to reduce the anxiety (compulsions). After sharing his personal experiences with the audience and his motivation behind making the series of short films, Graeme explained “We connect through relationships in the narrative. Mine is just one story.”

15% of the population will hear voices at some point in their lives. Some can get on with life without it bothering them. However, this only applies to more expressive individuals. Psychologists explain that voices are an expression of intolerable pain and are more likely to occur in people who are sensitive to what Dr Alison Braddman describes as being “a toxic and insane world”. Braddman talked about the important progress society has made with recovering from psychosis and the recognition that mental health teams and community carers deserve. The breakthrough here, however, is the emphasis on “Early intervention services”, which is set to be the key focus of these developments in the mental health sector.  Braddman expanded on David Miliband’s comments and discussed the importance of “dispelling myths to reduce stigma.” A practical approach to this is already being taken though anti-stigma campaigns that are company-fused. Take Aminormal.org, for example, a website with a wealth of information on psychosis, in an attempt to get people to recognise their own symptoms or the symptoms of those around them at the earlier stages, on the theory that prevention is better than cure.  Braddman concluded “It can happen to any of us, but there is help available. I don’t think any one of us can imagine the courage it would have taken for participants Karl, Jess and Michael to take part in these films. I hope through their courage, we can help others and recognise the importance of moving on after making a full recovery.”

One of the cases encapsulating the essence of the condition is that of a young girl Jess Davey. Her father’s message to fellow parents going through the experience of having a child struggling with mental illness is “Do not be afraid to challenge the professionals, for they can diagnose a condition, but the real experts on the child are the parents.” Davey explained “Families feel like they are losing their child many times over”.

Jess’ symptoms started off with OCD, which developed to an extreme state. She would wash her hands repeatedly until they bled. Her obsessively tidy nature was also taken to an extreme level when she would force herself to stay up all night to tidy her room. “Every drawer had to be perfectly closed and checked repeatedly” Jess’ mother explains. Her psychological torture led her to attempt painkiller overdoses as well as severe self-harm. In probably the most dramatic documentary of the three, Jess reads extracts from her diary about her episodes of self-harm, overdoses and what she was feeling at the time. She further explains how she heard the voice of a woman talking to her, telling her she was “worthless” and that she “deserved to be punished”. Jess tried to ignore the voices and go about her business as normal, but the female voice continued to pester her. “The voice got louder and louder if I ignored her”, Jess explains. “I couldn’t understand it, but she would get so angry if I didn’t listen to her or did as she said, to the point of screaming in my ears so I couldn’t hear myself think.” Jess’ state of mind grew worse; the next thing she knew, Jess’ parents had no choice but to call for a doctor, but were told that the only way she could receive treatment was for them to call the police and have her taken away to the hospital to be sectioned. At this point, Graeme Smith’s accomplished film-making becomes increasingly apparent in a dramatic crescendo of distressing sounds, darkness as the screen goes entirely black to create the scene of Jess hiding in her cupboard at home, terrified and confused with the loud and fuzzy police radios she can hear encroaching on her. The crescendo ends in a high-pitched police siren and Jess’ extremely panicked breathing. Reluctant to go with the police and naturally terrified, Jess was carried out of the house reluctantly whilst kicking and screaming and literally “thrown into the back of a police van” to be taken to hospital.

Smith’s raw documentary-style is commendable in its own right. It sparks a raw empathy in the audience and he is successful in leaving a deep impact of mental health experiences on the viewer. In a profound closing statement, Jess’ father told the festival’s audience “Through adversity you can gain hope”. He commends his daughter on the resilience that got her through her toughest times. Jess, now in her final phase of recovery having made remarkable progress, explains how happy she is having gained independence. Now 20, she has moved into her own apartment and is off to study graphic design at college in September of this year. Jess tells me how she loves music and fashion, Vogue in particular: her career aim is to work in the fashion world. “I related a lot to singer songwriter Missy Higgins when I wasn’t well, but now I prefer Laura Larling and Leddra Chapman.” Jess smiles and says “I love my family and friends.” Her positive light shows through in her level-headed and proactive approach to a now fulfilling life. She is yet another inspiration to be applauded and admired for her courage and strength in the face of adversity.

The running themes through all films not only highlighted the OCD in all sufferers, but the prominent use of drugs triggering these mental health symptoms in two of the cases. Whether drugs are solely responsible for mental health problems is debatable; nevertheless there is a strong argument for it. The UK’s infamous “Talk to Frank” organisation, well-known for providing information on drugs and its side effects through its online, radio and TV campaigns, states that cannabis is the most widespread illegally-used drug in Britain, the side effects of which certainly affect mental health. According to ‘Frank’, “the regular use of cannabis is known to be associated with an increase in the risk of later developing psychotic illnesses including schizophrenia. If the recent increase in availability of stronger forms of cannabis does lead to an increase in total use by some people, this might also lead to an increase in their future risk of developing mental health problems.”

All recovered mental health sufferers at the event discussed the vital ingredient that is hope for the future and how significant this was in getting them through their darkest days. The support of friends, family and also employment helps those recovered to rebuild a normal life with a healthy routine and social life again. Freedom of choice was also discussed as a key ingredient for a successful road to recovery including the right to have one’s own choice of career and lifestyle.

Film festivals like these could be the way forward to raise awareness and challenge the stigma that still exists regarding this subject today. Next year’s Mental Health Film Festival which David Miliband will again be supporting as well as A-list celebrities plans to celebrate people’s stories once again “to combat the negative truths attached to pathology”. Next year’s Festival will be extended to three full days of entertainment, including a variety of films, music and speeches. The power of film and entertainment is not to be underestimated in getting the message across to a wide audience. A prime example of an award-winning blockbuster that is so appropriate to this theme is “A Beautiful Mind” starring Hollywood actors Russell Crowe, Ed Harris and Jennifer Connelly. The title “A Beautiful Mind” itself holds positive connotations and the lead character portrays a mathematical genius going mad. His reality of this is superbly directed by Ron Howard. The film is based on the book by Akiva Goldsman and Sylvia Nasar and is based on a true story. The brilliant but asocial mathematician accepts secret work in cryptography, but his life takes a turn to the nightmarish, the mentally ill aspect of which becomes the shocking realisation later in the film.

As part of the mission, advert campaigns to raise further awareness are launching on social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. This campaign greatly focuses on combating stigma and educating not just Britain but the world about mental health. Organisations like Mindz Matter http://www.mindzmatter.co.uk/aim to promote positive mental health and the Narrative Inititative.The lasting impression we are left with by all recovered mental health sufferers is one of great courage and strength of character, not only to recover from what can only be described as inescapable nightmares when awake, but the survival and positive steps that require patience, bravery and determination. These are real people, with real lives, real ambitions, real feelings, with a real story to tell and what needs to be realised is that it could happen to any of us.

Visit http://www.mentalhealthfilmfestival.co.uk/

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To read the full extended report with additional case studies, click here: Mental Health Film Festival Report_full report

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