mental health awareness week... 

Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival’s 
Andrew Eaton-Lewis talks online festivals,
kindness and the importance of creativity

20th May, 2020

“It feels strange to me that anyone should have to justify using the arts to help improve people's mental health; it feels like having to justify the use of food to alleviate hunger”

Andrew Eaton-Lewis is Arts Lead for the Mental Health Foundation, and works to develop new work for the annual Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival.

Andrew has worked with the Mental Health Foundation since 2014, with projects including The Dust of Everyday Life, an annual conference on the arts and mental health, as well as Declaration, a festival exploring issues around health and human rights. Andrew is also founder and leader of the Mental Health Award at the Edinburgh Fringe.

This year's SMHAF coincides with Mental Health Awareness Week (18-24 May), hosted by the Mental Health Foundation, with this year's theme ‘kindness’.

Due to COVID-19, the annual festival was cancelled and moved online, releasing an online programme of selected work, events, and creative opportunities - available to view here.

The Mental Health Foundation is hosting its annual Mental Health Awareness Week, with 'kindness' selected as this years theme. What could you tell us about the theme, and why 'kindness' could be the most resonant of all during lockdown?

I wasn't personally involved in choosing the theme but I think it's very timely. So many stories about kindness have emerged from the lockdown, stories about people looking after each other, checking in on each other, sending food or gifts to lift people's spirits in isolation. It just seems to have been an instinctive response for many, many people, which has been lovely to see. Being kind to yourself is also really important just now. The lockdown is a really stressful situation, in terms of work, financial survival, relationships, home life; it's testing people in a way that a lot of us have never been tested before. Ultimately, kindness is one of the main things that is going to get us all through this and therefore something to celebrate and encourage, as well as asking how society could be structured in a way that's kinder to its most vulnerable people. Mark Rowland, CEO of the Mental Health Foundation, puts it well: 'Wisdom from every culture across history recognises that kindness is something that all human beings need to experience and practise to be fully alive.'

Making art can help people express themselves, without having to use words. It can act as a therapy of sorts. What is it about the arts that seems to alleviate mental health problems?

I can't imagine what my mental health would look like if I didn't have access to the arts in some form. Creativity is fundamental to human existence. Human beings have told stories, sung songs, and made pictures for thousands of years, to process what we're experiencing, to connect with other people, and to give meaning and shape to our lives. Even people who claim they're not interested in 'the arts' do or share these things instinctively. It feels strange to me that anyone should have to justify using the arts to help improve people's mental health; it feels like having to justify the use of food to alleviate hunger. I looked up a couple of articles on the subject though and found a good quote from the chair of Arts Council Wales. “The arts are a way of forming, shaping and holding in front of your eyes something you feel internally." That's a nice way of putting it.

There’s something art, whether it's a film, play or song, that is far more relatable and impactful than text alone, in reducing stigma around mental health. The Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival is unique in that it focuses on both. How did SMHAF begin, and how did you get involved?

We're not unique - there are lots of organisations all across the UK that combine the arts and mental health - but we've definitely been ahead of the curve in lots of ways. The origins of SMHAF were in mental health activism. It had become clear that you could reach a lot more people with an anti-stigma message if you did it through the arts - film, music, theatre, comedy, visual art etc. Telling stories about people's mental health humanises it - it makes it about people's lives, and the complexity of those lives, rather than a collection of symptoms and stereotypes. It's why a TV soap opera doing a mental health storyline can be so powerful. If a character you already feel you know well goes through a mental health crisis of some sort, it's like watching it happen to a friend or a family member. What you see is a person you care about in pain, not just a stranger with a condition you don't understand. Or if it's something you have gone through yourself then it can make you feel less alone to see a character on TV going through the same thing.

“It's actually been a good opportunity for us to revisit questions about accessibility that we've been asking for a while now - is the festival accessible enough to people with social anxiety, or chronic illness?”

I started working for the Mental Health Foundation five years ago, as SMHAF was approaching its tenth year, so I was able to help shape its tenth anniversary programme. The festival has continued to go from strength to strength since then and I'm proud to have been a part of that, although it's really important to stress that SMHAF is a community festival. It's programmed from the grassroots up by people from all over Scotland, and the events that are programmed by the central team amount to only a small percentage of the hundreds of events that happen each year. In lots of ways the community the festival has created and nurtured is as important as the festival itself.

A huge majority of festivals closed their doors due to COVID-19, and instead moved online. SMHAF followed suit to release a programme of arts, events, and opportunities that would have otherwise featured. What was the decision like to move online, and how important do you think it is to be engaging with communities, and in particular young artists, during lockdown?

We decided even before the lockdown began that we'd need to cancel SMHAF. I think we were one of the first UK events planned for May to do so. It wasn't actually clear at that point whether live events in May would be affected by the virus, but it was clear that the uncertainty could be very stressful for all the people across the country who were planning SMHAF events and we were keen to avoid that. On the other hand, a lot of work had already been done. Hundreds of people had submitted entries to our writing competition, and the winners of our international film awards had already been chosen. We did consider just postponing the festival, but a programme consisting of hundreds of events all across the country is not an easy thing to move, and it was very unclear when we'd be able to move it to anyway. So it made a lot of sense to try and preserve as much of SMHAF as we could online. 

It's no subsitute but there are things that clearly do work - we're showing short films from our film competition programme, we'll be showcasing the writing awards winners, we're showing films of theatre shows from previous festival programmes, we've turned what was to have been a gallery exhibition into an online exhibition, and we've managed to find different ways to make some of the live events we'd planned work online. It's actually been a good opportunity for us to revisit questions about accessibility that we've been asking for a while now - is the festival accessible enough to people with social anxiety, or chronic illness? We're asking audiences for feedback and will be applying a lot of what we learn with this online programme to future festivals.

Finally, how are staying calm and creative during COVID-19?

That's a daily challenge for all of us, although where I live makes it easier. I moved to the Outer Hebrides a couple of years ago, so I was already used to working remotely, and the Mental Health Foundation have been incredibly supportive of this. Since the lockdown it's definitely been a lot less stressful self-isolating in a village than it might have been in my old flat in the middle of Edinburgh, and my heart goes out to everyone who's stuck in a confined space in the middle of a city. Having said that, I'm currently having to balance work with home schooling two children while also looking after a two-year-old, so I'm certainly not feeling calm or creative all of the time. But being able to take a walk up the hill with the dog every day and look out at the sea is a huge help. I've been playing the piano when I can too, and trying to limit the amount of time I spend on social media.

SMHAF: International Film Awards 2019 at CCA, Glasgow, Photo by Ingrid Mur

You can learn more about Mental Health Awareness Week and SMHAF below: / @mhfestival / / @mentalhealthfoundation

#TimeIsInfinite #KindnessMatters

words: patrick taylor

uoh 2020 — @uok.hun