Mental Wealth Festival 2015

A new festival celebrating and exploring mental wealth

In September 2015 hundreds of people gathered in central London to celebrate wellbeing at the inaugural Mental Wealth Festival. Participants enjoyed two jam-packed days of activities exploring good practice and sharing creative skills to promote mental wealth. From its original inception as a small book festival celebrating mental health literature, the festival steadily grew into a showcase for a rich and diverse collection of professionals and experts by experience. Everybody involved shared their own personal stories and experiences sparking debates on topics from young people’s mental health to creativity as a bi-product of mental health.

The festival was unique in its inclusivity, with contributors and attendees encouraged to mix and share ideas without barriers. It was organised and delivered in partnership by Beyond Words, City Lit and The Cathedral Innovations Centre. Baroness Hollins, Chair of Beyond Words, explained: “Over two full days, a diverse range of people engaged with activities and spoke about issues in ways they wouldn’t normally do. The Festival has brought people together across many different sectors and is already leading to new partnerships and renewed commitments to create and support community based initiatives to enable mental wellbeing. Through art, music, film, policy and poetry these conversations will be continued.”

Education, Young People and Mental Wealth
In an inspiring workshop, students from Limpsfield Grange School and writer Vicky Martin discussed their collaboration in writing and publishing ‘M is for Autism’ (Jessica Kingsley Publishers). The book draws on their own lived experiences to produce an honest and moving novel that captures the highs and lows of being different in a world of normal. The girls spoke about how they used their personal experiences to create the character of M, and how they wanted the novel to reach out to other girls on the autistic spectrum. Jess, a student, said, “We don’t want other girls with autism to go through what we have been through; we want them to know there are loads of cool girls on the spectrum out there, and that they are not alone.”    

Later that day saw the Youth and Mental Wealth panel discussion, which included a diverse range of speakers. Dr Carlie Goldsmith, Director of North RTD (Research Training & Development), discussed people over 50 whose mental health problems were not diagnosed or dealt with in childhood, and had lived with the difficulties their whole lives. She talked about the importance of people with mental health issues having some control and influence over the decisions that affect their lives and, in contradiction, how often their voices aren't heard. Due to past traumas, these adults often lack confidence or are too scared to speak up, fearing no one will listen to them.  Sarah Kendrick, Head of Service at Place2Be, talked about counselling for children becoming woven into the fabric of schools. She expressed how the mental health of pupils is one of the biggest concerns facing teaching today and explained how embedding mental health services within schools helps to ensure that these services are easy to access and delivered quickly and without stigma.

Sarah Wild, Headteacher at Limpsfield Grange School, talked about the integral role that education plays for young people with mental health issues and how Limpsfield Grange takes an approach that supports the wellbeing of the girls. The physical environment at the school is sensitive to the girls’ needs and takes account of the special sensory challenges/issues/needs/criteria. Lorna Garner, Chief Executive of Beat (the leading eating disorder charity), talked about the fact that 1 in 30 people may have an eating disorder at some stage in their lives and how 62% of children with an eating disorder present before they are 16. She continued to discuss the huge social and economic costs of eating disorders. Boys, girls, men and women from all backgrounds are affected; eating disorders are mental illnesses and can be a way of coping with feelings or situations that are making people unhappy, angry or anxious.  From this it’s clear that early intervention with mental ill health is critical if we are to avoid crisis situations in future.

The debate extended to those in the audience, including Professor Barry Carpenter who stated, “of course mental health issues in the ASD population are running at 60% plus, and we are not very attuned in the system to dealing with this; we call it ‘diagnostic overshadowing’. People blame the Autism for the behaviour, but really it is a mental health issue.” Debating these issues enabled attendees and speakers alike to problem solve and work towards installing positive changes in their own organisations.

Learning Disability on Screen
A screening and Q&A of BBC Three documentary ‘Unbreakables: Life & Love on Disability Campus’ demonstrated a different, creative approach to promoting mental wealth. This film follows the lives of young people at National Star College in Gloucestershire. In this brave, honest and confrontational film, the audience were invited into the lives of young people with learning and physical disabilities – whose limitations are frequently overshadowed by their vibrant personalities on screen. We were joined by director Guy King and producer Colin Barr, as well as one of the show’s stars, Nathan Mattick. The group shared their journey of producing the film and inspired debates about everything from being young to responsible film-making.

Parliamentary Debate
The Festival also included a wide range of events including two parliamentary debates on ‘Access to Mental Health Care’ and ‘Criminal Justice’. Many tangible achievements were made over the two days, through both the forging of new partnerships and the opportunity to influence and gain solid assurance from sector leaders including the Rt Hon Alistair Burt MP, Minister of State for Community and Social Care.

The Westminster debates opened with an introduction from Flick Drummond MP, who welcomed a panel to discuss access to mental health. The contributors were led by Alistair Burt MP who chaired discussions with an expert panel and members of the audience. The panel included Paul Farmer, CEO of Mind, Baroness Hollins, Chair of Beyond Words, Prof Til Wykes, King’s College London, and Lord Crisp. Mr Burt restated his dedication to continue driving improvements to current policies and assured us he would bring the outcomes of this debate to his party to raise and act upon accordingly.  

Sharing Stories
Across the Festival, audience members shared their stories and experiences in a safe environment and were treated with compassion, respect and sensitivity. Over the two days several Books Beyond Words book clubs took place, involving people with mixed abilities including many Progress students from City Lit. Groups gathered on campus to read stories together, from pictures, and discussed topics from acting on stage to coping with low mood and depression. One particularly memorable moment from the Festival took place in one of these book clubs, where a young adult with learning disabilities who doesn’t usually speak in class, spoke for the first time in front of their teacher. Parent Geraldine Blake highlighted how the Festival had inspired her and other participants with powerful feelings of hope and empowerment, “It’s brilliant, I feel encouraged, excited and positive that there are ways of obtaining the best for my son to realise his potential and lead a meaningful life.”

The closing celebrations went beyond recollecting the event and the focus shifted to future planning as speakers and participants proposed ideas for next year with passion and vision. It is this collaborative effort that sets the festival apart from other mental health conferences. All of those involved in this year’s festival hope to continue these discussions in order to shape an even bigger and better festival next year.

Mark Malcomson, Principal and CEO, City Lit explained: “We’ve long recognised our impact on our students' mental wealth and the part we play in improving their wellbeing – we know students choose our courses for many reasons, in addition to the great education they receive: to meet people, reduce isolation, build confidence and self-esteem as well for fun and for new experiences – it all contributes to better mental wealth. It’s hugely positive that people are now more prepared to discuss mental health openly, whether it’s actors, MP's or CEO's, and we are delighted that the Festival contributed to widening that discussion."

The Mental Wealth Festival 2016 event is in next year’s plan for Beyond Words, City Lit and The Cathedral Innovation Centre. The hope is to expand the event to realise a broader vision and involve more contributors and a greater number of attendees. There is a definite buzz still resonating after this year’s event, and with this much positivity and enthusiasmwe believe that the Mental Wealth Festival 2016 will be the go-to mental health event of the year.