Hannah Overton recounts a very special What Do You Think Day
Have you ever been to a rave in the snow? Before Saturday the 11th of February I too would have looked at you strangely if you’d asked me that. But that was before I took part in UCL’s Mental Health Awareness Day called What Do You Think?
Organised chiefly by Aisling O’Sullivan, Jia Su and Constance Wraith, the day was designed to draw awareness to various mental health conditions and to the fact that 1 in 4 people will be diagnosed with a mental health condition in their lifetimes. It was also created to provide options for individuals to explore their own mental health through creativity and mindfulness. Sounds great, where do I begin!
The day started for me at 8:00 am in Tavistock Square Gardens. Here, the Mindfulness Society had been asked to organise a silent “rave”. This involved me donning a pair of rather unsexy headphones, dancing like a no one was watching and all the while unsuccessfully attempting to document the experience on The Amnesty’s Instagram (you can see the photos that did survive @Theamnesty_journal).
After a freezing cold hour and a half where much fun was had I moved on to the Institute of Education, where the main event was held. My first stop? A creative writing workshop run by the poet and playwright Cecilia Knapp. Knapp encourages people to explore their feelings using “free writing”, where you put pen to paper and write without stopping. She also devised an exercise whereby you write a shopping list of eight items and then attempt to put them in a poem. If you’ve never attempted to use the word “peas” in a poetic manner, I assure you it’s not very easy!
Next up, a talk by LGBT+ rights activist Matthew Todd. He spoke movingly about his experiences of being a gay man and the mental health effect of society effectively shunning LGBT+ people. He told us tales of children committing suicide after being bullied for being gay and, in one instance, of the father of a teen who had killed himself also taking his own life. There is a fine line between medicalising LGBT+ people (“being gay is a mental disorder!”) and effectively talking about the mental health plague in the community but Matthew walked it with ease.
Right, on to poetry, the most affecting of the sessions I attended. Here we heard from individuals who were dealing with mental health difficulties and illnesses themselves and those who were close to them. In one incredibly moving double act, two sisters shared their poems. One wrote about the hideous symptoms her disorder gives her, including the feeling that she wants to kill herself. The other, responded in a poem entitled “Don’t Do It”. The crowd was on the verge of tears.
Last but not least was the panel discussion. The panel included actress and writer Fiona Geddes, ADHD and autism expert Dr Giovanni Giaroli and the head of Student Psychological Services at UCL, Catherine McAteer. Fiona, who has a family member with schizophrenia spoke about the stigma attached to such illnesses and said that even those with the disorders may refuse to believe that they have the illness because of the stigma attached. Dr Giaroli, was drawn by a question from the audience to examine self diagnosis, which he believes is correct 90% of the time, and overdiagnosis which he sees as a huge problem with ADHD. At one point, Catherine McAteer practically begged the students in the audience to come to her service if they were ever suffering from a mental health problem as currently most students don’t attend the services they should until they are in crisis. It was fascinating to hear from the perspectives of a clinician, a creative and a mental health support worker all at once, making the panel the most interesting group of the day.
All in all I had an informative day and found that the balance between creative approaches to mental health and clinical approaches was well done. I would have liked to have seen a broader spectrum of mental illness and personality disorders but as it was the event’s first year, a narrow focus was to be expected. My only regret is that I couldn’t attend more sessions! Keep a look out next year for the next instalment of What Do You Think? and be sure to come along.