The Mental Health Issue

Eddie Harrison: “I don’t think it would have expanded like this unless it fulfilled a public need"

Mental health is not something foreign to film, but has been explored by countless directors and screenwriters since the inception of cinema. From memory loss to dementia, it makes up a large percentage of what we view on screen. Now in its fifth year, the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival encourages people to actively engage in discussing and thinking about mental health issues.

Through its varied programme, comprising film, theatre, music, literature, comedy and visual art, it aims to create an accessible setting in which participants can comfortably explore very real problems.

Originating simply as a weekend of films which dealt interestingly or appropriately with mental health issues, it set out to illustrate that many of today’s productions approach the idea of mental health from a bad perspective. Slasher movies like Halloween, or thrillers that use some kind of mental issue as a shorthand for megalomania, are a far cry from the reality of coping with mental health issues. The SMHAFF attempts to de-stigmatise mental health in such a way, as people often associate it with illness.

According to Eddie Harrison – the director behind the film part of the festival – “It started off as a perceived need or opportunity for something which dealt specifically with mental health issues. It was an original idea and not an imitation of something which was being done in another country.”

As he rightly points out, “Everyone has mental health, it is not just something that happens to a very small group of people necessarily. Everybody has issues one way or the other.”

On the face of it, one could argue that every film is about mental health. Harrison seems keen to emphasise this as he challenges, “Show me a film where the main character doesn’t go through some kind of mental stress.” It is when film is approached in this light that you can begin to realise that every plot can be seen to address some kind of mental health issue, although naturally, some do it better than others.

With over 250 events across Scotland covering a variety of different art forms, Harrison is right when he notes, “I don’t think it would have expanded like this unless it fulfilled a public need or was something that needed to be responded to by people.” He also stresses that there is no hierarchy of one event over another. They all share an equality, whether it be a small key performance in a hospital or a gig put on by a well known artist.

Harrison has curated the program along with Dr Peter Byrne, who is a psychiatrist and senior lecturer at University College London. Byrne is an expert on mental health in the movies and so by working with Harrison – whose experience lies in film criticism and making – the pair have managed to compile a varied selection of films.

The fascinating thing about the SMHAFF is that people come along to the screenings not with an interest to talk to the filmmakers – they are not there – but to talk about the issues which the films explore. As Harrison says, “If you put on a film that gets an emotional response from an audience, it helps to open them up and attracts people who maybe want to talk about the issues behind it.”

Ever expanding, the festival has had something of an international effect, with other countries imitating or taking example from it. Its awards have gained critical acclaim, garnering attendees who come from far and wide. The reason for its success seems obvious, as Harrison concludes: “Film is a fantastically accessible thing and can open up subjects which people wouldn’t take if it was handed to them in a didactic way. Mental issues are a growing thing; there are a lot more people on anti-depressants. There is a general concern about how people can deal with their mental health. The key thing in the festival is that it raises people’s awareness of it. By doing something like this and getting it out there and having people publicly talking about mental health, I think it removes the stigma and challenges people’s perception of mental health.”

The Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival is showcasing events across Scotland until October 24th.

Taken from The Student, published Tue Oct 18th 2011.

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