Everyone needs a HUG – Jenny McBain finds out about an innovative mental health project.
HUG is an internationally respected pressure group based in Scotland. It’s members are mental health service users who are breaking barriers and building bridges in the field of mental health.
There is a degree of separation between medical staff and patients in all branches of medicine. But in the sphere of mental health that barrier can take the physical form of a locked door. Then there are the thorny issues of compulsory detention and enforced treatment which widen the gulf between people with mental health issues and those who are paid to look after them.
So could an arts event involving representatives from each group help to kindle new found empathy and understanding?
This was the question posed by HUG – a network of people who campaign for a better life for people in the Highlands with mental health problems. ‘From There to Here’ was a day-long event, held on 21st August 2012, during which a group of participants based in Inverness met up on a houseboat for a storytelling and art workshop.
At the same time, a second group of professionals and people with a mental health diagnosis set out from Fort William, stopping en route to meditate poetically on the day’s themes.
In the afternoon the two groups came together and took a boat trip through a series canal locks, out into the Beauly Firth. Going through the locks had symbolic significance; an acknowledgement that barriers have to be overcome in an attempt to cultivate new ways of communicating. And when one individual sometimes has occasion to physically keep another under lock and key, the stakes are high.
HUG Manager Graham Morgan said, “We decided to organise an event called ‘from there to here’ so that we could break down the barriers and the locks in our minds that stop us from talking to each other. And it worked. The barriers fell away and allowed for mutual understanding.”
The Fort William group was with poet John Glenday and poet and speech and language therapist Maggie Wallis. They set of towards Inverness, stopping at various way points to meditate on the day’s theme. And they kept in touch with the Inverness group by text.
One of those read, “a bridge is the space between you and me… the width of a breath, the width of a universe”
Another said, “Waterlight plays freely on steel gates tickling them until their mouths open wide and water spills out, a roar, a cackle of sound”
In Inverness the group sessions were led by story teller Ian Stephen and artist Christine Morrison. Ian told a traditional tale entitled ‘The Wise Grieve’ and Christine encouraged participants to respond to it by making bold pastel strokes on a page, with their closed eyes. This extraordinary approach produced some interesting images.
Student nurse Fraser Ross was inspired by the sessions. He said, “I see a key part of my nursing role as holding out the hope of recovery for people. In order to do that I have to be able to mix with people who have been mentally ill but are doing well.”
A service user who is usually nervous around medical professionals said, “It was good to meet up with staff out with hospital and on an equal footing. I found it quite empowering.”
HUG is a very influential pressure group, much respected internationally and by major UK organisations like the Royal College of Psychiatrists. So where they lead others tend to follow. What then is likely to follow on from this project?
Graham said, “We would like to do further arts events and the canal meeting has already led to ideas for artwork and writing on a similar theme over the next few weeks.”
The results of these endeavours will be showcased on the HUG website and will also be exhibited in Ullapool, Inverness and Fort William.