Today I have officially become a volunteer for the Heads and Tales Mental Health Heritage Project. I’ve been a volunteer for it since last month but today finally filled out the official volunteer application forms and received the official induction.
The project, running for two years, aims to create a brand new heritage archive for the north-east of England “exploring, rebalancing and celebrating the voice of people experiencing mental health conditions.” We will be listening to many contemporary stories as well as hearing the experiences of people who knew what it was like to live with conditions in living memory. We’re also going to be given access to lots of relevant archives dating back into the 1800s and finding stories and voices there. The archive will primarily be viewable online but will contain not just words but paintings, drawings, sculpture and all kinds of creative media that people with mental health conditions can use to tell their stories.
The project and archive, as presented in this manner, is something new. We’re not trying to replicate anything that’s gone before. I’m hoping that, long-term, many people and organisations will hear what we have to say and that the project will help in the reduction of stigma against mental health conditions. I’m also hoping that we can become a model to be taken up by other groups across Britain and even the world. It’s a big job. We have a lot of work ahead of us but we all believe the results will justify everything we put into it.
The following was written about a month ago, in the week before the project publicly launched on 26th January 2018. My words and the words of a few others were played on a loop in a room during the event. My own words tell of how I came to be involved in Heads and Tales and about why the project excites me so much.
The initial website is almost up and running – with an empty archive. For further information please head to our Facebook page – which is also an early work in progress but will develop as the project progresses past these early days.
Hi, I’m Clare, part of the steering group for the Heads & Tales Project.
I’ve come to the project late in the day. I’d heard about the project a while ago and booked to attend today. I though I might just want to get involved. Sixteen days ago, on one of my bad days, a friend dragged me to Chilli Studios. I’d been meaning to come and see it for quite a while but somehow I hadn’t had the wellbeing to walk through the door. I came, nervous. And my friend proceeded to desert me. The place almost felt like home. Internally I said “wow” at the place and the people. Two days later, at a training event, I was invited to become a part of the steering group. Such an unexpected privilege. I’d been expecting to come along today and find out a little about the project, not to be volunteering with it already. It’s one of the better surprises.
I’m very excited by everything the project is setting out to do. I’m autistic and also have a range of mental health conditions. If a diagnosis has the prefix schiz- or any of the words depression, anxiety, or personality disorder then there’s a higher than average chance it’s in my medical records somewhere.
As such I’m eager to be involved in this project because it is part of wider campaigns to reduce stigma against people with mental health conditions. It’s visible expression of a community that once dared not speak its name but now refuses to be talked about without being a big part of that conversation. Throughout much of the history of psychology and psychiatry the voices of those affected by such conditions haven’t been listened to. I’m thrilled to be part of a project that will help to redress that balance.
Things are changing. But largely that’s the result of the work of people experiencing these conditions. The autism community and the voice of autistic people only exists because of the work of autistic people being enabled – in the first case through the internet – to come together, share experiences and speak out to the world calling not just for awareness but for acceptance as people who are different but aren’t lesser people. The same is true for other communities. Those who hear voices or have other hallucinations, those with BPD, with bipolar, and so on.
Thing are changing. They have to change. For too long we weren’t allowed to speak. This project, as it says on the launch flyer, will help to rebalance the silence that was forced upon us by professionals, by experts, by academia, by a society that is, because it’s perhaps human nature, suspicious of those who are different. Perhaps that suspicion is an unfortunate part of human nature – perhaps that’s just something we’re taught. Together we can lay better, deeper foundations for the celebration the flyer mentions. Being able to delve into archives to see what we’ve been allowed to say for ourselves through the decades will be an amazing experience. I want to know what there is out there. Our stories. In dusty papers that tell the world what to think about us. While so often excluding us. We often use the maxim, “Nothing about us, without us.” Even now a lot is said about us without involving us. Even now we can be silenced. We, the experts with lived experiences, can have our mouths taped over and our pens broken. This project is a natural development of the maxim. Heads & Tails is a case of “Everything about us, with us.”
This project is brilliant because, while we may have help, it’s peer led. The steering group actually steer. It’s not just a bunch of service users bowing to authority. It’s a real voice. The staff members, who we’re very lucky to have and who have oodles of experience, listen. It’s also brilliant because already I can see that we will be fully supported to be ourselves, on good days and bad, and that accommodations are in place to carry us through the lows without prejudice or penalisation.
For myself I’m excited to be involved because of what I believe the project will give me. It’s early days but unless my personal involvement goes wrong for some unseen reason in my mind I’ve pledged myself to give what I can. And I see that by the end of the two-year period I’ll have received the gifts of friendship, peer support, training, experiences I couldn’t have dreamed of two weeks ago, blossoming creative outlets and skills through Chilli Studios, the chance to tell my own story in a variety of settings, and to hear the often painful, often triumphant stories of others, the chance to work with some brilliant people, and at the end of it have an exciting CV to show to employers in places I want to be – rather than a picture of mental illness and an empty employment record. I could end up putting a lot into this project, and I want to because I already believe in it so much. But I believe I will end up getting a lot more from it than I put in.
Voices will be heard. Not just oral voices. Not just words. We’re not just going to collate voices from the past. We’re going to create a brand new archive of creative voices from people today who are affected by mental health conditions. I’ve seen some of the plans for what lies ahead. This isn’t just a project. It’s not just a website to look at and it’s not just a replication of what’s gone before. This is pioneering work in many ways. This will be an example for others to follow. This will be a barbaric yawp, always passionate, always creative, sometimes chaotic too, and at this moment I am decided that our barbaric yawp will be sounded loud, proud, and diverse across the rooftops of the north-east and beyond.