Thursday, 26 November 2015

Where are the arts in mental health strategies?

Yesterday I attended Higher York's conference on young people's mental health, 'Everybody's Business', showing an extract of the performance 'Wormwood in the Garden' I developed with Imogen Godwin and other young people in a mental health setting).

There is clearly high awareness at every level of the need for really concerted action on mental health in children and young people.  Action that recognises that, for whatever reasons (we may suspect them but cannot prove them), we have a bit of an epidemic on our hands.  And for a different, more ecosystemic model of working in which young people don't need to jump over thresholds to 'qualify' for treatment, where all the adults working with them do feel qualified to engage with and support their wellbeing without fear.  The recent policy 'Future in Mind' is inspiring stuff in many ways.  And just seeing the full room of intensely engaged individuals coming together from such a variety of professions and institutions was equally heartening.

What still concerns me is that what is being called 'mental health' may be part of an agenda of shifting responsibility for concrete, economic, social societal issues onto individual young minds. However supportive we may learn to be of them, are we empowering (naff word but very apt here, no apologies) them to define these causes and help reshape the society we are growing up in?  If, for example, as one speaker said, the majority of Year 10 and sixth form girls are experiencing mental distress of some kind, can we not go further than lamenting the cuts to further education budgets and the increasingly competitive, individualistic employment market?  Not to mention the media-engendered body fascism, the constant requirement to perform an acceptable identity in the virtual sphere, the growing inequality gap, the precarious zero-hours contracts, the doom-laden inevitability of austerity and climate change? Don't young people need to rage, as well as conscientiously work to improve their mental wellbeing along with everything else we ask of them?

I will keep saying it til I am blue in the face, but young people need the arts.  They need them so as they have the widest possible spectrum of languages to find their own understandings of these things and decide just what needs to change.  Of course storytelling can provide this language for some.  So can theatre.  So can other artforms.  I could not find one single mention of the arts in 'Future in Mind'.  Yet eight different people, representing eight different organisations/teams, approached me after our session asking how they could get training in using storytelling and the arts in their work.  All seemed to be saying that talking 'about' young people's mental health problems with them was not enough.  Other languages are needed.  We need the big stories of our culture to help us understand where it's going and open up real dialogue.

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