“I used to worry that I had gone mad, but really I have no time for that,” exclaims Anna in the opening moments of Stef Smith’s 2015 play Swallow. It got a big laugh from the audience the night I was there. This, after all, is a woman who hasn’t left her flat in two years and is now smashing all her mirrors with a hammer.
This scene stayed with me throughout last year’s Edinburgh Fringe – a festival in which mental illness was not only a big talking point but an unlikely hot ticket. Bryony Kimmings and Tim Grayburn’s Fake It ‘Til You Make It, about caring for a partner with depression, sold out its entire Traverse run in less than a week and added an extra show in the main space at Assembly Hall. Then there was Felicity Ward, who somehow conjured a comedy hit – the third best reviewed comedy show on that year’s Fringe – from talking about irritable bowel syndrome and anxiety.
Swallow stuck in my mind, though, because of the way it presented an almost stereotypical image of mental illness – isolated, delusional, “mad” – then undercut it by showing you how the everyday turmoil of its other two characters was also a form of mental illness. Rebecca, a wife abandoned by her husband, self-medicates with alcohol before resorting to a brutal and yet somehow relatable act of self-harm. Sam is a trans man who hides the truth about himself – that he was born a woman – behind a fake performance of amiable boyish charm, until all his suppressed rage explodes at the worst possible moment, jeopardising his safety. I may not know what it’s like to be transgender, but as a man whose depression is very much rooted in suppressed emotions, and anger in particular, I related to that scene.
In the end, what helps all three characters in Swallow is connection. The same is true in Fake It ‘Til You Make It, in which a man hides his depression from everyone for years until his girlfriend stumbles across his pills. The man is convinced the woman will leave him -instead Bryony and Tim talked about it, then got engaged, made a baby, and spent most of Kimmings’ pregnancy performing a show together that was so honest, direct, funny, and humble about what they were going through that it prompted laughter and tears in equal measure.
In fact, the big theme of last year’s Fringe was not so much mental illness as honesty about mental illness. Kimmings said the spur for making Fake It ‘Til You Make It was the death of Robin Williams. Le Gateau Chocolat was prompted to make his similarly themed show, Black, by the death, a few months earlier, of the theatre-maker Adrian Howells, his mentor and friend. Men, in particular, still seem trapped in a crisis of silence – often unable to seek the help that they badly need because they can’t bring themselves to admit what’s happening to them. (Not to suggest that this is what happened to Williams or Howells in particular – their situations were specific and complicated – but both deaths were so shocking that they certainly prompted a lot of soul-searching, especially amongst men).
Artists are good at forcing into the open an issue that society in general would prefer not to talk about – or, as Kimmings puts it, “airing dirty laundry to oil conversations on seemingly difficult subjects”. It is one of the reasons why the Mental Health Foundation, the charity I work for, has been running an annual arts programme, the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, for ten years now. Theatre, comedy, music and other art forms have the ability to cut through stigma and taboos to offer another way to look at the world – while, crucially, making this seem like a fun thing to do.
There is a slight risk in focusing on artists; if you’re not careful, people will conclude mental illness is just something that happens to those wacky creative types. In the run-up to a radio interview at last year’s Fringe, I was asked what I thought of a recent study that suggested comedians have personality types linked with psychosis. My response was to politely sidestep the issue. The idea that there is a link between creativity and mental illness is a persistent one, but if it is more visible in the arts, I suspect the reason is just that it’s a more accepting environment than “mainstream” society. You probably won’t end your career as a comedian, actor or painter by admitting you have a mental illness, but you might if you’re a bus driver, teacher or office manager.
This, for me, is why Fake It ‘Til You Make It stood out from a crowd of Fringe shows on the subject last year. It wasn’t Bryony, the wacky performance artist, who had depression; it was Tim, the advertising account manager who had never performed in front of an audience before. Tim is a classic example of a regular guy who was hiding his mental illness because of stigma – and it took an artist to make him stop. What persuaded him to do the show, he said, was the hope that his honesty might persuade other people like him to admit they have a problem too. Judging by the success of Fake It ‘Til You Make It – which is back on tour this autumn – it seems to have worked.
Communication will only get you so far, obviously. It will not free you from poverty, for a start, as the British government’s austerity policies continue to have a serious impact on the nation’s mental health. So this year the Mental Health Foundation also programmed a new festival, Declaration, exploring the wider issue of health and human rights, which is set to return next year.
In the meantime, we’re back in the thick of the Edinburgh Fringe. Shows about mental health generated a huge amount of media coverage at last year’s festival, and when the Mental Health Foundation brought together some of the most high profile performers – Bryony and Tim, Felicity Ward, Le Gateau Chocolat, and Carl Donnelly, alongside Paul Merton and his Impro Chums – for A Gala for Mental Health, it felt like a significant moment. Bryony told me that there was a real sense of camaraderie in the dressing room – here was a group of people who had all gone through similar difficult experiences and now felt able to talk about it publicly, bonding together. I was very pleased to hear that.
We’re doing A Gala for Mental Health again this year, at the Pleasance on 17 August, with proceeds going to the Mental Health Foundation. Please come along. This year it’s an all comedy line-up – which is partly just a reflection of what seems to be on offer at the Fringe in 2016. I haven’t noticed obvious theatre/cabaret equivalents this year of Fake It Til You Make It, or Black, but there seem to be a lot more comedians talking about mental health. This may be partly the influence of comedians like Felicity Ward, who have managed to bring the most uncomfortable subjects into mainstream entertainment. It may also be something to do with Robin Williams, whose death cast a huge shadow over the 2014 Fringe and will continue to be in a lot of people’s thoughts each August; there’s another benefit show the week before ours with lots of comedians paying tribute to Williams.
Our line-up this year consists of our returning host Felicity Ward (who is doing another mental health themed show this year); Susan Calman, who has just published a book about living with depression; Chris Gethard, who made headlines internationally in 2012 after writing a long and heartfelt letter to a fan who was contemplating suicide; Richard Gadd, whose new show promises ‘a fresh insight into mental illness in the modern age, perceived ‘masculinity’ and how something presented on the outside is not necessarily the truth on the inside’; and Martha McBrier, who, like Bryony, is spending her Fringe show this year telling a story from the perspective of a carer, describing the time she took a group of mental health patients to compete in a pool tournament.
I’m looking forward to seeing all of these shows – and Felicity’s, in particular (I’m off to see it tonight in fact). I still have one moment from her show last year lodged in my brain; when she describes having a panic attack so serious she had to be physically restrained by her boyfriend. Flailing around the stage, she somehow makes the moment hilarious, upsetting, moving, and both cartoonishly weird and deeply human and relatable, all at the same time. That takes a lot of skill and I salute her for it.
Comedy seems like a great way to talk about mental health. Someone like Felicity can put an audience at ease straight away, cutting through a lot of the nervousness people feel around the subject. It’s been fascinating, this past year, watching warm, likeable comedians like Felicity and Carl Donnelly using their own experience of mental illness as a subject for comedy. Neither, conspicuously, is using it as an opportunity to show off their darker, more serious side. They just think it’s funny. And in making audiences laugh with them, rather than at them, they normalise it. That’s progress.
(NB: this blog is an updated version of an article I wrote for Scotland on Sunday in August 2015. But they never got round to putting it online, so…)