Reclaim your life: Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival

By Leonie Rothacker
Screwing up a theatre performance, setting your girlfriend’s apartment on fire and going to prison for it – this is what can happen if mental diseases aren’t diagnosed and treated. The Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival gives formerly ill people a stage to speak and tell their stories to encourage people with mental health issues to seek help and get better.

„The thing is I’ve got myself into a bit of a mess…I keep forgetting my lines. I’ve left my girlfriend and I’m beginning to stink. And to make matters worse, I’ve met the Devil“, Mark Lockyer (50) tells his audience. If only this was the worst part of his story.

The casually dressed man with dark skin and bushy eyebrows stands on a stage in a theatre in Edinburgh, Scotland, in the basement of the Scottish Storytelling Centre. This is not an unusual situation for him, since he is an actor and already stood on many stages in the UK. But still, this is somehow special, as he doesn’t play a role in here, but tells his own personal story about his mental illness.

It starts off with him playing Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet in Stratford-upon-Avon for the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in 1995, becoming a famous actor; his career was at its peak. He meets a woman called Poppy, who fascinates and attracts him in a way that he cheats on his first love and finally ends the relationship with her after seven years of being together.

Marks infatuation is the beginning of the end: Poppy doesn’t want a serious relationship, and he begins to show the first symptoms of manic depression and bipolar disorder. As he tells his psychologist, he doesn’t shower in days, sleeps or drinks the whole day until the performances at night and has to force himself on stage every day. He constantly forgets his lines and one day goes totally crazy on stage, taking the saxophon of one of the musicians and singing random songs in front of 1500 people; followed by a mental breakdown.

After a suicide attempt, a failed trial to start a new life abroad and returning completely broke to Poppy, he asks her if she hates him and she replies: „Mark, I’m beyond fucking hating“. He goes insane and commits a crime, setting her whole apartment on fire and even enjoying the „amazing dancing flames“, as he tells. He goes to prison and finally receives pychiatric intensive care at a hospital for three years.

This may have been the turning point in his life: One of the other patients called Wayne hangs himself. Today he says: „I think it was seeing Wayne dying, what made me want to live.“

By now, he’s better and may be considered healed. As he tells, he will never get rid of the disease completely, but he learned to live with it. Mark Lockyer has returned to the RSC as an actor in summer 2016 and in addition, put together the solo-show „Living With the Lights On“ about his path to recovery, which he performs on several stages throughout the UK. The performance in the basement of the Scottish Storytelling Centre on the 17 October is the premiere in Scotland, and moreover, is part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival 2017 (SMHAFF).

As the name suggests, this is a cultural festival with lots of events and exhibitions throughout Scotland, all dealing with mental health issues through arts, theatre, music and film. It’s in its eleventh year now, running from 10 to 29 of October, and has become one of the largest festivals of its kind worldwide. This year’s theme is called „Reclaim“, which is about reclaiming your life, language, creativity, identity and – most importantly – your mental health. As an example, the festival’s arts lead Andrew Eaton-Lewis tells: „Mark Lockyer reclaimed his life, his health, his career and his story.“

But there are more examples: „The event ‚Hysteria’ for instance deals with the impact of sexism on women’s mental health, so it’s about reclaiming your body from people who abused it.“

He tells that the festival basically is about sharing experiences as Mark Lockyer does, encouraging people who suffer from mental disease to talk about it and seek help. According to him, the festival is quite established now, so the artists mostly come to them and ask if they may do a performance at the festival. However, in Mark Lockyer’s case it was different: “I saw a video of his performance before and then asked him to do it at our festival, because it really fits in.”

Andrew Eaton-Lewis knows well what he’s talking about, since he has already been working for three years at the Scottish Mental Health Foundation and has been living with depression and anxiety himself for a long time.

He is not alone. According to the 2013 Global Burden of Disease study, the predominant mental health problem worldwide is depression, followed by anxiety, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. In the UK, nearly half of adults (43 percent) think that they have had a diagnoseable mental health condition at some point in their life, according to the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey 2014. The same survey shows that a third of the people who self-identified as having a mental health problem, have never been diagnosed by a professional. So there is a need to encourage people to talk to professionals and get help.

This as well is the aim of the SMHAFF exhibition „Out of Sight, Out of Mind“ in Edinburgh’s Summerhall. As the website tells, it is „a mix of works by professional artists who have experienced mental health issues, and self-made artists working with community mental health projects to learn to express themselves in art.“

When you enter the Summerhall, you get to hear classical music while strolling through the several rooms in which the artists placed their works. On the ground floor, it’s mostly professional paintings, while on the first floor you see a lot of photography, for instance two pictures of an old mother and her daughter. One picture shows both of them naked, cuddling on a blanket, while the other one shows only the old naked woman, having a picture of a young man painted on her skin. The artwork is called „Reclamare: to cry out; reclaim“, and reading the caption it gets clear that it is about the mother loosing her son fifteen years ago and the mental issues in the family afterwards. The artist tells her story, just like all the paintings, pictures, statues and installations in the Summerhall tell stories – and so do all the people expressing themselves at the SMHAFF.

„There is a big value for mentally ill people in hearing these stories, so they know they’re not alone“, Andrew Eaton-Lewis tells. He is sure:, „Arts can encourage people to talk about their problems and seek help.“

Mark Lockyer agrees, as he tells at the end of his show. He is being very honest about the fact that the theatre wasn’t even sold out at his premiere, and he wished more people would have been there to hear his story. But, after all, talking about all the effort the festival organizers, nurses, social workers and many more put in their work to help mentally ill people, he says: „If only one person gets better, it’s already worth it.“