Mental health and mental wealth is about everybody. We’ve spent three successful days discovering and rejoicing in so many different ways to enhance our mental health. The festival, brought together by Books Beyond Words and City Lit, celebrated the numerous ways we can all contribute towards our own and others’ mental wellbeing. There is no health without mental health: it is the key to our wellbeing.
Over 700 people attended the festival to hear inspiring talks and contributions from comedian and mental wellbeing advocate Ruby Wax, His Eminence Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, writer and communicator Alastair Campbell, and authors Paul Dolan and Toby Litt.
The Mental Wealth Festival is unique in the calendar: it is not a conference, but offers learning; it is not a symposium but offers thought space; it is not a retreat, but there is scope for reflection. It’s rare to see events so clearly open to both professionals and people with personal experience of mental health problems, taking part as equals. The mix of people is invaluable; we learn so much from each other.
To launch our three days’ celebration of mental wealth we started with two discussion panels in Parliament.
Mental Health and Homelessness
The first panel focused on homelessness, with powerful and, at times, emotional stories reinforcing the importance of secure housing to positive mental health. Lord Bird brought his experience of London’s homeless situation, and “The Big Issue”, referring to some of the background causes of homelessness. He told us that 30% of children are being failed by our education system; that failure is the precursor to this homelessness and mental instability, and needs to be addressed. Poverty of expectation in education is leading to a lifetime of poverty, drug abuse, homelessness and criminality for many. What has not been spent in early life on raising those expectations becomes a greater public cost burden, in trying to rectify ensuing mental health problems, through our hospitals and the prison service.
Jeremy Swain of Thames Reach noted the increasing numbers of homeless people who have mental health problems, currently at about 47% and rising. We heard moving stories of lives being transformed through their work and that of the Cardinal Hume Centre, building relationships and trust which can lead on to further support, and lives being rebuilt. However, we were also reminded of the “hidden homeless”, those with no secure home: people who are just one payment away from homelessness. The impact of housing insecurity on mental health should not be underestimated.
Kenny Johnston’s personal story, leading to establishing CLASP could not have failed to move those present. His successful intervention in the intended suicides of over 65 people is a true testament to his commitment to use his learning from his own mental health issues in the most powerful way. It was good to hear the support of others around the table, with his ongoing fear of losing his home. We were all made more aware of the power major organisations can have over our lives and mental health, and were given a lot to consider as to whether or not their actions are contrary to Equality legislation.
We need to change perceptions around mental health, to one of openness and recovery: psychiatric units are devoid of “get well” cards. People must be supported in the next step down from hospitals and institutions: nobody should be discharged onto the streets without support in place. Rethink’s report “A Place to Call Home” highlighted everyone’s concerns about the proposed benefits cap, which will impact those whose only hope of recovery depends on supported housing.
The Impact of the Media on Mental Health and Wellbeing
The second panel gave us all insights into the various ways in which the media impact individuals’ mental wellbeing. Hugh Grant highlighted the experiences of so many ordinary people, who had not sought to put themselves into the public domain, whose tragic circumstances had brought them to the attention of the tabloid press. The impact of such intrusion is deep and long-lasting, with many still not able to speak of their experiences years later. Despite Leveson and its recommendations, “Hacked Off” told us of continuing negative reporting, breaching current editorial standards.
Baroness Jane Campbell demonstrated her passion for equality, highlighting the apparent inability of the media to portray disabled people as having normal, everyday lives. The stereotypical extremes, of either Paralympic superheroes or benefit scroungers, gives the public very narrow and polarised views of disability. The relentless drip-feed of negativity, particularly relating to the mental health of disabled people whose ESA has been removed or reduced, has led to increased hate crime and abuse.
From the journalists’ side, we heard of the genuine good intentions of newly trained journalists, who become subsumed by the bullying culture of press newsrooms, to the point where their own mental health suffers in the struggle to get the story demanded of them, at any cost.
We were all encouraged to participate in the consultation on a new draft Standards Code, by visiting www.impress.press
Two Days at City Lit
There followed two incredibly creative days, which included Ruby Wax describing her addiction to emails, which keeps her up until 2 o’clock in the morning, just responding to SPAM! She demonstrated the power of humour to help each of us to begin to talk about and share some of our own experiences.
Many of our event presenters, each of whom donated their time to the Festival, commented on the range of backgrounds of participants: nursing, teaching, psychology, medicine, care professionals, learning and discussing together with service users, volunteers and people who were just interested. As one participant noted “Where else can you get two days of brilliant stuff about things you’ve always wanted to know?”
Dr Sarah Northcott gave invaluable insights into the impacts of living with aphasia and stroke, using simple, practical, thought and speech exercises to help each person experience the struggle people living with these conditions go through to find each word. The development of empathy and understanding has to help towards a more accepting and supportive society. We wish Sarah well in finding participants for her new and exciting research project.
Professor Barry Carpenter’s event was, as always, inspirational; attendees reported feeling empowered and affirmed. Creating mental wealth through building emotional resilience in children and young people is supported by evidence showing that if we can give children the treasure of emotional wellbeing, there will be fewer problems during adulthood.
Money and Mental Health also elicited a lot of positive responses, with at least one participant saying they had not previously been aware of the connection between mental health problems and financial difficulties. Simple awareness of the potential mental health impact of each other’s life experiences is so important in developing an open and supportive society.
Having a hard-hitting and direct film portrayal of living with bipolar disorder was made so much more powerful by having Bex Simon, the subject of the film, present in the room, able not only to respond to everyone’s questions, but also to explain the powerful ways in which her episodes can lead to greater artistic creativity. For the person in the room who had just been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, feeling her own life to be over, listening to Bex discussing her own full life as a wife, mother, and artist was particularly important. We will all be watching for the installation of Bex’s next high profile piece of public art in July 2017, remembering that it was designed after a particularly difficult episode. Art and its role in achieving and maintaining mental wealth have proved to be key feature of the Festival.
Marilyn Tucknott’s packed interactive sessions were once again very popular. One person attending “How we perceive is how we proceed” said “I have learned more about myself in this session than 15 years of therapy”, it spoke to those who find themselves making the same less-than-helpful life choice over and over again. The Hawaiian breathing techniques acted as an alternative to the many mindfulness sessions, with one participant saying “I can teach this on to family members”. So the benefits of the Festival will spread further throughout the year.
Rachel Kelly’s “How to walk on sunshine” workshop was well received by a warm and supportive audience who participated in exercises to foster resilience and good mental health.
The final panel event saw Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor talking about old age as the frontier between time and eternity, sharing his reflections on what it’s like growing older. Across the days there was a lot of talk about mindfulness, including mindfulness workshops of different kinds, whether using art, or of a more secular tradition. In this last session there was the suggestion that maybe mindfulness should go in accompaniment with “heartfulness”. The love that we find in our small communities should be a key part of our mental wealth: most importantly, we have to build those small communities.
The Festival’s closing celebration included poetry readings and music, expressing so many different experiences of ways we can each support our own mental wealth.
Throughout the three days, it is hoped that festival-goers have begun to form small communities of people with something in common. It is sincerely hoped that these will grow and flourish until we meet again at Mental Wealth Festival 2017.
"Where else can you get two days of brilliant stuff about things you've always wanted to know?" - Festival attendee