Before joining the weird and wonderful world of WoW, I once worked as a door-to-door Charity Fundraiser for the Samaritans, yes I was one of those annoying people with the florescent green anoraks and a clip board rapping at your door asking you in a very rehearsed pitch to hand over your bank details during the England match of the Euro Finals…cringe, cringe, cringe. I remember thinking this would be a lot easier if I was on the Macmillan team, the idea that your monthly direct debit of £8.50 would be used to fund a nurse to support a cancer patient through chemo as opposed to being put towards a new phone line for people to rant about their problems seemed all the more convincing. Sadly, this reaction was confirmed across the look of many people on the opposite side of the door’s faces. But really, what is the difference between the prior and the latter? The money received for both charities would be used to support those suffering from an illness which a) affects everyone and b) is responsible for a large number of deaths worldwide. Everyone knows someone affected by Cancer and everyone knows someone affected by mental illness.
I feel that a creative writing competition focused on mental health and what it means to the individual is a perfect place to start when beginning to try and tackle the stigma around mental illness. Creativity has always been so intricately entwined with mental health, before we even knew what ‘mental health’ was, when all we could explain was the ‘heart ache and [a] thousand natural shocks.’ (William Shakespeare, Hamlet) From Shakespeare to J.D Salinger, the pain and suffering of the human mind has been well documented through the writing and the expression of the author, before we were able to rely on science for some understanding. It’s therapeutic to write and it’s therapeutic to read, especially when what we are reading mirrors our own pain and suffering.
Organising Mental Health and Me has certainly proven that while people may not always find the words or the strength to speak openly about mental distress, there is definitely some comfort felt in writing about it. The number of entries we received for the competition definitely exceeded our expectations with a steady number of entries per category. The entries covered such a wide scope of issues surrounding mental health including writing on personal experiences with depression, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, OCD as well as some personal accounts of what it is like to work as a carer. Some entries even focused on what happiness meant to them which was lovely to read as sometimes, while it may seem obvious, people often overlook that happiness is a major part of mental health. I was also quite surprised, although I shouldn't be, that our entries were quite evenly spread across the age groups which again reinforces the truth that mental health affects everyone. I also have to say that I was absolutely delighted by the cover and artwork created for the book by our designer, Rosa Murdoch. I believe that the artwork for the competition was pivotal in helping us to break the stigma surrounding mental health. So often, charities depict their literature and design for mental health in such a clinical way which would make anyone run a mile, but I believe our chosen design is very inclusive, kitsch and reflects the creativity linked with mental health.
It has to be said that one of the most exciting parts of organising this competition was being granted the opportunity to meet the fabulous Ruby Wax who so kindly agreed to meet with us and let us film her announcing the overall winner of the competition who turned out to be the lovely, Gemma Rogers. It was fortunate that Ruby was in Liverpool in September as part of a UK Tour of her show, Sane New World which is based on her book around mindfulness which she wrote after her study at Oxford University where she gained her Masters in Mindfulness-based Cognitive therapy. Following Ruby’s accidental ‘outing’ of her depression, she has since become known as the poster-girl for mental illness. While at first, Ruby claimed she was mortified that her secret had been revealed in the least subtle way, (her face was blown up on a poster throughout every tube station in London with the words ‘THIS WOMAN HAS A MENTAL ILLNESS’ attached), Ruby now owns it and works hard as an activist in tackling the stigma surrounding mental health. Myself and Madeline as well as Sarah and Claire from the Mental Health Consortium, were very excited and humbled to meet her at The Playhouse before her show, she was very down to earth, gracious and happy to help us and accommodate us with what we asked her to do. We would like to thank her for helping us to raise the profile of this competition and I would also have to say that I definitely recommend her book, Sane New World, having read it after I developed a slight obsession with her after meeting her – and also because I found out she co-wrote Absolutely Fabulous. (Amazing!)
On World Mental Health Day, 10th October 2014, we held our celebration event for Mental Health and Me where we announced the winners and runners up for each category and invited the overall winner of each category on stage to read from their work. Each winner and runner up received a free copy of Mental Health and Me book and the overall winner, Gemma Rogers who wrote ‘Letters to Myself’ in the Letters category won a special trophy and a £100 book voucher from News From Nowhere. The celebration was a fantastic event with a brilliant turnout.
Councillor Alan Dean who attended the event hit the nail on the head when he said:
‘It was a real privilege for all of us, [Councillors] Wendy, Claire & Tim, to be there and to share in what was an uplifting and emotional event. And the same applies to the book that was on sale that night. Again, very moving, emotional and uplifting.’
Looking back at the event, one month after its passing, it is clear how much of a wonderful, positive impact Mental Health and Me has created and it’s great to have a legacy following the competition. One week after the celebration event, we received an email from Liverpool Echo’s Tom Belger, who asked could he write a feature on Gemma Rogers and her experience in coping with and overcoming self-harm which can be read here. In a kind of dominoes effect, we then received a call from a lady who told us she had read about the article in the Liverpool Echo and was wondering how she could purchase a copy of the Mental Health and Me book as her daughter was suffering from a similar experience and she felt that her daughter would be able to relate to Gemma’s story, especially as she was around the same age. The lady pointed out how beneficial it was to have a book like this made as she was unable to find anything similar which her daughter may relate to. We believe this point was reiterated by the fact that for the first time, we completely sold out of 100 books on the first night of sale during the Mental Health and Me celebration event. As well as this, we have also been approached by other charities and organisations who are interested in a partnership to create a similar competition with their cause having seen the very positive effect it has had.
On behalf of everyone at Writing on the Wall, we are delighted that we have helped people to break their silence, share their story and change their life, even if it’s only slightly and we will continue to push forward and create more publications like Mental Health and Me.