Katie Charlton is a theatre-maker and facilitator specialising in creating work with, by and for young people experiencing life in the margins. In this post, Katie describes some of her work on TiPP’s 'Arts in Mind' Project, a 12-week programme of creative workshops exploring the theme of mental health with care experienced young people aged 13 -25 funded by Mind and Action Together Oldham.
Today I am working with a group of care leavers from Oldham to creatively explore the tricky and emotive subject of 'mental health'. The project is called 'Arts in Mind'.
I ask the group to find a space in the room. A space where they can avoid eye contact with others and take a moment to think quietly about a place that they love. A place that they feel safe, warm, contented and relaxed. A place that they can be completely themselves. The place can be real or it can be imaginary.
I imagine each individual to be suddenly streaming through their minds beautiful images of sandy, sun-drenched beaches with palm trees swaying in the breeze, or a forested hilltop with only the birds for company, a peaceful park or a tranquil riverside.
I myself imagine my favourite childhood walking route through the fields of my old home town.
Once we have been calmly resting in our favourite places for a few minutes, I ask the group to come back together in a circle and to share some thoughts about the places their minds had settled in. What does the place smell like? What can you touch? What sounds can you hear and who or what can you see in your favourite place?
What do our places have in common and what makes them different?
As we start to share these little tidbits, building up a picture of our places, it starts to dawn on us that the young people's places have far more similarities than differences.
Notably....Four walls. A sofa or a bed. A screen and a locked door. No other people.
All of the young care leavers have ended up back in their bedroom. A place they can't be seen, heard, looked-at or judged. Through discovering their safe spaces, there is a palpable sense of shared isolation that sits very uneasy with me.
Yet I see ten faces sitting in front of me. Ten young people who have all thrown themselves out of their comfort zones to take part in this creative project. A place that they will be seen and heard. A place full of other people.
'We need to make a film or a play about mental health. What it's really like to have mental health problems and how it makes people feel. We need to get people to understand what it is like.'
There is an urgency in the way they feel they need to tell their stories. The group throw ideas around. Plays, books, films and sculptures. Large pieces of art work and photography.
Before long we have created a character. An unloved, unwanted and misunderstood care leaver who is eventually driven to lose her marbles. She goes on a magical adventure to find them.
There is a little piece of everyone in this character. She's been in care. Brought up by her Grandma, she still wears her pearls around her neck. Now she is trying to live out in the real world and is far too young and too damaged to cope. The magical world she escapes to will help her find her way.
This is the story of all of our care leavers and this is the story that they want to tell. They say they want to tell the stories to combat the isolation, the fear of judgement and the stigma that comes from not having a textbook upbringing and the emotional distress that comes with that.
We plan to tell the story of the girl who lost her marbles through shadow puppetry. The silhouettes we create are a safe way to perform, yet to keep hidden, to show ourselves, yet to escape.
The group want to share the story with other looked after children and care leavers. They want to start discussions around mental health awareness, stigma and where to get help. Their passion and drive to push through their own struggles is inspiring and powerful.
We have seven weeks to go.