SMHAF – what’s that I hear you ask? No, it’s not a revival of a series about little blue men with white hats in the 1980s. Instead it is the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival (SMHAF), a Scotland-wide festival of art, drama, music, theatre and lots, lots more. This annual festival, now replicated across the world, aims to both support the arts and challenge preconceived ideas about mental health.
From humble beginnings in 2007, SMHAF has grown into one of the largest festivals of its kind in the world. Its aim is simple yet powerful – to connect and celebrate the artistic achievements of people with lived experience of mental health difficulties. With a strong social justice agenda, SMHAF provides a platform for individuals who are often denied a voice and the arts, in a multitude of ways, can act as amazing tools of expression. I say this as someone who doesn’t have an artistic bone in their body!
I have been involved with SMHAF for about 10 years, in various guises, and I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the festival expand but, more importantly, seeing individual artists grow – individuals who have sometimes struggled with being labelled with a ‘diagnosis’ or as a ‘patient’ but who now describe and see themselves as artists, inspiring other budding artists to get involved. The arts can provide unique ways of expressing yourself, getting your voice heard or simply telling your story. In doing so they can open up dialogue about an issue, mental ill health, that many people in Scotland would prefer to ignore, label or hide. Mental ill health is still, sadly, heavily stigmatised, and this festival is a great way to start challenging that stigma – and it could be as simple as just starting a conversation.
In Lothian, SMHAF also has a history of using unusual spaces, spaces that might not otherwise be opened up or used to display art. This year is no exception, for the first time Cyrenians’ very own Flavour and Haver Cook School is exhibiting Patrick Keast’s thought-provoking photography and our Community Gardens in Midlothian and Edinburgh are the beautiful settings for the ‘Meet your Emotional Homunculus’ workshops, residents from our Social Bite village are exhibiting artwork at North Edinburgh Arts Centre and HMP Addiewell residents and visitors have created a display which will be on show in both the prison and the Visitor Centre – to my knowledge the first time SMHAF has been in a Scottish prison.
At Cyrenians we support people who often feel on the edges of society, disconnected from their communities and overlooked. It made perfect sense for us to be part of SMHAF, providing the people we support with another avenue to express themselves, to feel part of something whilst participating in a broader conversation around mental health. I also think that this festival shares a lot of the same values as Cyrenians by bringing people together and recognising the value in those small achievements, which often are just as important, if not more so, than the ‘big stuff’. We know that for people we work with, that first conversation can be the biggest hurdle but without it we can’t begin to understand what support someone might need.
SMHAF helps start those conversations and this year’s theme is Connected – a focus on the importance of staying connected to each other. A timely reminder to not only look after our own wellbeing but also, in these uncertain times, when some in our society are hell bent in creating divisions, this year’s theme seems particularly apt. SMHAF is running through the month of May – find out more here.