Festival Preview: Scottish Mental Health Arts & film Festival



By Paul Rodger, Arts Editor

This month’s Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival will mark the event’s ninth year. Spanning 22 days, from the 10th – 31st, and hosting showings of art forms throughout Scotland, from film, literature and music, to performance including comedy, dance and theatre, the festival continues to collaborate with the arts to address the issues and prejudices surrounding mental health.

One of the artists involved with this year’s events is the author Matt Haig. Discussing his latest book – released in April – Reasons to Stay Alive, in conjunction with the Dundee Literary Festival, Matt will talk about his own deeply personal experiences and the troubles of battling and living with depression. Before his talk on the 23rd, the Telegraph got in touch with Matt to discuss this year’s festival, his new book, and his views on the issues and nature of depression.


ST: How did you hear about and get involved with the SMHAFF?

Matt: “I’ve been doing a lot in Scotland specifically about mental health generally all year since April; that’s when Reasons to Stay Alive came out. I think because Canongate are a Scottish publisher, with the launch in Glasgow, and that was a big mental health event. Lots of Scottish mental health charities were involved with that. I’ve just been on their (SMHAFF) radar a bit this year because of that and because of talking about problems specifically with men and depression, a lot of unspoken stuff and stigma still exists, and I’ve had a lot of interesting conversations in Scotland about the Scottish nature of that versus different problems going on elsewhere in Britain.”


ST: How do you feel the festival challenges perceptions and stigmas around mental health?

Matt: “One of the biggest problems with most forms of mental illness compared to physical illness is that it’s invisible, so people are quite ignorant of the fact, and that’s not always their fault. One thing that surprises me researching and writing my book is that the science side isn’t there yet really. There’s still a lot we don’t know about the brain, and so wherever there’s ignorance there’s always going to be stigma, and I think people are really scared of mental health. So I think one objective we have is to make mental health perceived in the exact same way as physical health.”


ST: With a diverse selection of art forms on show and one of the central aims of the festival being awareness, how do you think the festival can connect with and engage a varied audience?

Matt: “I think it’s good to approach their billing with a multimedia kind of thing. Most of the festivals I’ve been involved with have been specifically based around one thing, normally it’s a book festival, so I feel this is the way forward. It’s just to have a bit of something for everyone and to approach a topic like mental health from various angles. I think it’s better to do it that way, a sort of holistic approach.”


ST: In particular with your profession and the form of literature, and with this year’s festival theme being ‘passion’, how do you feel writing about mental illness experiences can help connect with people and disseminate information and encourage understanding?

Matt: “One of the things I felt was totally isolated and alone. I think writing is important as it can make people feel less alone. I think there is a responsibility. I felt it when I wrote my book. But to try and find a way about talking about depression that isn’t depressing, you’ve got to have a little bit of responsibility to try and offer a message of realistic hope.”


Matt Haig


ST: As regards to your latest novel and first autobiographical release, how did you feel approaching the subject of depression?

Matt: “I just wanted to basically try and make it as simple and accessible to people as possible. I pictured myself when I was 24, living in Ibiza, my head being a total mess, and trying to think if there was anything that could’ve got me through it. So things like short lists, short chapters, short paragraphs, short sentences, is just a good way of breaking down the message and getting it through. I didn’t want it to be academic, I just wanted it to communicate a simple message.”


ST: Almost taking a humanistic approach to an individualistic, existential issue – obviously depression is widespread and there is help out there – but how much did you and do you feel you have to take the personal battle on yourself?

Matt: “That’s it. When I first started writing about it, the idea was for the book to not be a memoir at all and not for it to have any personal stuff in it at all, but the more I researched and the more I realized there aren’t that many facts that everybody agrees on, it becomes more personal. The one central truth we’ve got is our own experience. So whilst there are still people out there who think you can just pull yourself together, or it’ not a real illness, it’s just emotion and something you can snap out of, the more people say “no, it’s actually serious stuff”, it can be treated by that.”


ST: To what extent do you think it has perhaps made you a more reasoning person and stronger afterwards?

Matt: “I honestly think, and it sounds a bit weird saying this, but I’m quite thankful for having had depression. I think if I hadn’t had it in such a serious way at such a young point in my life, I don’t think I’d have understood myself in the same way. I don’t think I’d have appreciated things. I was a typical young man, going out and having the most intense experiences; drink, drugs, you know, the edgiest of everything, and now I’ve learned to appreciate normal life and just to be thankful. I’ve got a family now, and I’ve had something horrible that’s happened to me, but it has made me a more thick-skinned person. The flip side of that is that it makes you appreciate stuff that you didn’t use to appreciate. When I’m next seriously ill, that might be different, but right now when life’s good I’m thankful to have had the experience even though it is horrible to go through. I had it when I was 24. Now I’m nearly 40, and you begin to get an idea that that negative worldview is a lie. It’s very dangerous when people first get it because they don’t know that, but with time you do get that sort of wisdom that comes with being honest with yourself.”


ST: Lastly. What are your hopes for your hopes for your latest work in helping and informing sufferers and non-sufferers of depression? The book was released in April this year – what’s the feedback been like so far?

Matt: “It’s been phenomenal. Don’t think that my publishers or me were expecting the kind of response it got. Part of it’s been quite hard to deal with as I’ve been getting lots of emails and stuff from various vulnerable people and I’m not a doctor, I’m just someone who’s gone through an experience. But it’s been quite a lovely feeling, because I use to feel sort of less alone about my own experience, but also actually I can help people who’ve been off work with depression or helping people to get back to work, and those who aren’t depressed who have kids, partners or other relations who’re depressed to understand them better. It’s felt nice because I’ve written lots of books before and you might get a nice response to them, but this feels like something different and it took everyone and me by surprise. It’s the book I’m most proud of, and I’m glad I wrote it”.


With the theme of this year’s festival being passion, SMHAFF seeks to collaborate once again with the arts to tackle problematic social stigmas relating to mental illness. Commenting on this year’s installment of events, festival manager Gail Aldam said: “What we’re aiming to explore is the emotional dimensions of mental health; we’re looking at how we can live with our passions and make them work positively. We’re looking at passion in all its forms, like intensity, love, rebellion, excitement, hope, fear, or celebrating the collective passion that we all have for the arts, and the passion the artists have for the creative process as well.” Discussing next year’s SMHAFF tenth anniversary and the festival’s future, she added: “Next year is the 10-year anniversary of the festival; it’s an exciting year for us. We’re just aiming to continue with what we’re doing, but we’ve got some exciting projects that are happening all year round as well, so we’re not just focusing on the festival in October next year, but we’re looking to have a number of all year round activities happening as well that will lead up to this 10-year anniversary event. As always, our core aims are at the heart of everything we’re doing, so it’s about raising awareness, tackling stigma, creating great arts events, and bringing different organisations and communities together”.


*SMHAFF runs from the 10th – 31st of this month, and Matt Haig will be presenting his new book in Dundee on the 23rd from 6:30–8pm at Bonar Hall, University of Dundee. For more information visit http://www.mhfestival.com



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