Insight: grassroots mental health in the southside of Glasgow

17 May 2019

Recovery Connects Festival, Queen’s Park Arena. Photo credit: Jennifer Jones

This Mental Health Awareness Week, we meet the Glasgow southsiders who have dedicated themselves to help build and foster grassroot communities around mental health

It’s a sunny, warm Sunday in Glasgow. People are smiling because we don’t get these often. Queen’s Park is fully committed to “taps aff” as a Stone Roses cover band takes the stage.

There is something a little different from a usual Glasgow crowd. Promoted as an alcohol and drug-free festival, Recovery Connects has attracted more than 2,000 people to the Queen’s Park Arena. People are enjoying the sun and the free music, and many have travelled from across Scotland to attend.

It is the first public event that has been organised by Glasgow-based community interest company Recovery Collective. Derek Watt is one of the organisers. Watt, alongside other friends, who are all in recovery, came together to form the collective and to put on a festival that celebrates and makes visible the possibility of recovery from alcohol and drug dependence.

Watt tells me that the motivation was not just about providing a festival for people who are in recovery. He said: “It was not just about people with addiction issues, but also about bringing other communities together, because these things do not operate in isolation. We have got homelessness, social isolation and in particular, the impact on mental health.”

The lead-up to the event provided a catalyst to open up wider conversations about mental health and addiction.

Watt said: “When we were promoting the festival, we went out for the last six weeks and handed out flyers. We weren’t just handing out flyers, we would walk about the Southside area to ensure we could talk to people, and by telling them exactly what we were doing, what we are trying to achieve and personally inviting them along. That way we are able to build community in ways that can challenge stigma through personal conversations.”

Derek Watt, Recovery Connects Festival, Queen’s Park Glasgow. Video: Jennifer Jones

Although there are official stands promoting addiction and mental health services, Watt emphasises this event was organised by people in recovery, and not by official services. They have lended their support on the day, but Bell states: “It’s our event, we decided how it was going to look, we want to show what is possible when people who are in recovery come together, share ideas and put in a bit of hard graft to show what is possible.”

The festival leads into Mental Health Awareness Week, a campaigning week promoted by the Mental Health Foundation to raise awareness around mental health problems, as well as promoting wider discussion about mental health.

Facebook reminds me that “On This Day” last year, I had to address the impact of stress and anxiety on my own mental health. That time was chaotic and messy, and I often found myself in negative situations that compounded how I was feeling about myself.

At the time, Mental Health Awareness Week felt more like a barrier to me. Services, businesses and workplaces were encouraging people to talk, but did not seem to me to be able to deal with the consequences of poor mental health and what can often manifest from the messiness. I struggled to find the “right” way to talk about my mental health problems with others.

Since then, I have been fascinated by the growing forms of grassroots mental health activism, and how people have been using their own storytelling and creative expression to empower others to do the same.

Davey Shields, host of the MenTalkHealth podcast. Photograph: MenTalkHealth Podcast

Davey Shields moved back to Glasgow 18 months ago. He co-founded the MenTalkHealth podcast with his friend, Damien Friel, when they lived in Brighton. After working full-time in television, he was searching for a creative outlook to explore his own recovery after a suicide attempt following a period of poor mental health.

For Shields, running a podcast was a place to talk candidly about his own mental health recovery. It started with a focus on men’s health but has now moved into LGBTI+ and queer-specific issues. Their popularity grew, with people engaging with Davey’s personal journey, while being able to tell their stories as well.

MenTalkHealth. Logo: MenTalkHealth podcast

Shields says: “The core question on the podcast is ‘how’s your mental health?’ because everyone has mental health, and it is about checking in, regardless of where you are on a spectrum of recovery, whether you are seeking professional support or just touching base with how you are feeling.

“We encourage people to come on the show to use their own words, to share their own stories in their own words, which might not use the right language, or make sense to everyone. However, if you want to truly have a conversation about mental health – and some people need to find humour in doing that –  you need to find a way to allow it to happen that is honest and open, not just in the medicalised, sterile language of professional services.”

Shields adds: “It benefits everyone to talk about how they are feeling before things spiral out of control.

“We’d rather educate through conversation rather than reprimand. People should be allowed to not talk about it, or not feel that there is pressure to talk. And it is about finding the right person to talk too.”

Mandy Rose Jones, founder of the Empowered Women Project. Photograph: Mandy Rose Jones

Mandy Rose Jones began the Empowered Women Project last March after a period of poor mental health and a suicide attempt while she was studying in Dundee. Like Shields, Jones wanted to use digital tools, in this case, Instagram and the project’s blog, to help her creatively document the process of her own recovery.

After moving back to Glasgow, she coordinated a number of mental health-focused events which brought together people she had met online through the project. She now has her mind set on opening a mental health cafe. She envisions a space for people to discuss issues relating to mental health, and she also wants to take the project offline and into her community in the southside of Glasgow.

Jones believes we need to think differently about spaces to foster these conversations around mental health. She says: “I think we need to bridge the gap between people needing to go to the doctors and sitting in the house on your own, not reaching out. We need to create these social spaces where you don’t feel like you need to wait months to get an appointment.”

You Can Sit With Us, Empowered Women Brunch. Photograph: Jennifer Jones

Her brunches have brought together a range of speakers, some light-hearted, with others talking about more serious issues.

She adds: “I am hoping for a base where we could do this more regularly, a place to hold activities that are more holistic and aren’t associated with traditional mental health services.”

Vicky Kakos, outside the Wee Retreat. Photograph: Jennifer Jones

Vicky Kakos has been teaching mindfulness after her own practice found her supporting others in locations all over the south of Glasgow. She opened the Wee Retreat in December last year.

An ex-architect’s office, the building feels like it was almost designed to be a place of relaxation, light and airy with a garden space that members can use freely. Despite being tucked in off a busy Cathcart Road, it feels like it could be somewhere far away from the bustle of the city. Kakos’s aim is to provide a neutral space within the local community for people to take relaxing time for themselves.

Inside The Wee Retreat. Photograph: Jennifer Jones

Kakos noticed through supporting others that we are often not equipped to recognise that we need to take time to reflect and relax for ourselves. She says: “If you feel like you don’t know where you want to go, or if you don’t feel you want to go to a doctor, or you don’t want to go and speak to a friend, or if you just want a private space to just sit, have a cup of tea, and reflect, this is what it is for.”

She continues: “It’s different from, say, going to the park or being in a public space, when you are out in the open, where there is almost a societal expectation, like how you should behave, as in if you should make small talk or smile. But if you come here, I want people to feel like it is a private and safe space. If you don’t want to speak to anybody, but just sit, I get that people will respect that.”

For Shields, the benefit of being part of a smaller, grassroots organisation is not just how you can support yourself, but how you can support others when you are their safety net. He said: “The feedback we get the most from the show is from people who ask, ‘how do I listen write when somebody reaches out?’”

He added: “Actually, that is one of the biggest things. How do you support somebody who is trying to reach out, or is failing to reach out? So, there are those of us with our mental health concerns, but it actually how to also support those people who are our safety nets, because as much as the mental health services are great, and we need definitely need a lot more of them – they are aimed at the person who is going through that, and not about the support around that person.”

Our mental health can be impacted by the different challenges we face in society. The grassroots and community-based movements can provide a creative response and reaction to some of this.

Recovery Connects Festival 2019. Photograph: Jennifer Jones

Watt agrees, with the Recovery Connects festival, which aims to grow over the next year, running events all around Scotland to demonstrate what is possible. He says: “By challenging stigma around the issues our community face, we are also bringing everyone together as a collective voice, but not forgetting to have a good time too.”

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