Public domain: credit Ralf Steinberger

Exploring the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival

By Divya Venkattu

SMHAF provides inspiration and expertise in equal measure.

On October 4th, the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival (SMHAF) opened to a warm reception at the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA) in Glasgow. Manifesto, the Opening day of the festival, was marked by spirited performances and compassionate discussions surrounding mental health issues. The theme for this year’s festival is ‘Revolution’. While mental health issues are deeply personal, the festival seeks to shine light on external factors that negatively impact our mental health. It seeks to address the ways in which social inequality and economic turbulence cause and exacerbate mental health issues within our communities.

One of the opening sessions was a talk by award-winning activist Ally Zlatar, exploring how art can be used as a form of activism. Zlatar is the founder of the Starving Artist Scholarship Fund which helps people access inpatient treatment for eating disorders. Her talk focussed on how she channelled her decade-long experience with eating disorder to create an artist initiative, and the social activism she engages in through art.

The session ‘Living With Trauma’ brought to the audience photography and artwork created by people with lived experience of trauma. Representatives from Scottish Recovery Network and VOX Scotland contextualized photos and short videos created by people living with trauma, or that have been diagnosed with personality disorders. The output was an incredibly moving, quite beautiful depiction of their lives and experiences. After the screening, the panel opened to a poignant conversation where the audience shared their own stories of mental health struggles as well as their experiences of working with people who face serious mental health issues.

One of the final sessions, ‘Traumascapes: On Survivors’ Terms’ explored how filmmaking can be a channel for survivors of abuse to resist narratives of victimization and reclaim the narrative of trauma and mental health on their own terms.

As the opening day drew to a close, the enduring message seemed to be of one of hope and compassion, and the difference it could make to all of our lives. When a friend, a family member or even a complete stranger opens up to you on their experiences of mental health struggles, of pain, guilt and shame, of abuse and trauma, the idea is to really listen without judgment, with compassion and empathy; to acknowledge that being human is an experience often accompanied with pain, discomfort and sadness, but none of us are ever alone in this. Showing solidarity with others and sharing our own experiences often leaves us feeling less isolated and a little more hopeful that winters will not last forever, and spring is just around the corner.

The Mental Health Arts Festival takes place across Scotland from 4 – 22 October 2023 and has an exciting line-up of events such as film screenings, live music, participatory workshops, discussions and more. There are many events that are free and open to all. Find out more on their website.


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