It's a Wednesday night at Liverpool's FACT and Jade French is sat in its cadbury purple cinema space for a talk titled 'Madlove'. This new and innovative project asks, if we could design our own asylum – then what would it look like?
Just a few weeks ago I had an encounter with mental illness. One of my oldest and dearest friends descended into what I can only describe as abject misery. What's more, is that this shattering experience is nothing new or singular, but part of the ebb and flow of her life since she was a child.
Over the years she has experienced the mental health care system, but i've never been sure if it's been a help or a hindrance. I confess that those shared experiences with my friend have made me largely sceptical about mental health provision, so I was intrigued to attend a talk about an innovative new project that urges audiences to redesign the 'asylum'.
The aim of the project is to collaboratively build a user designed mental asylum - exactly how this asylum looks and functions will be collaboratively decided at a series of workshops taking place across the UK. Those taking part in the workshops will explore what objects, sounds, smells, colours, shapes, food, facilities and activities we need to create safety around ‘madness’.
Spearheading this project is James Leadbitter who is also known as the artist The Vacuum Cleaner. James describes himself as an artist and activist. His personal experiences of depression since his teenage years meant that he has experienced a variety of mental health institutions and is appalled at the conditions patients are subject to, quipping 'if I wasn't so depressed, i'd be angry'.
I was shocked to hear some James' experiences of mental health institutions; life is regimented like prison with any outdoor time limited and monitored. There are no gardens, terrible processed food, and sometimes not even a proper bed. It's impossible for me to understand how depression or any mental illness could be soothed in such surroundings. James also shared some statistics; mental illness is the the biggest killer of men under 35 and affects 1 in 4 of the population. That is shocking.
The evening wasn't just a talk, it also included audience participation in the way of a group exercise. At the front of the room were random objects on a table; cork, lego, key, string etc. The audience was asked to choose one object from the table that appealed to us in some way. Then, one by one, we were asked to tell the group why we had picked the object and how it could support someones mental health. The responses were intriguing. Objects were chosen because they appealed to childhood memories, because they were political or because they were metaphorical. Some objects were chosen for practical reasons such as stress relief or organisation. The range of reasons for how these random objects could support mental health reflected the diverse opinions people on what good mental health needs. It also gave a fleeting insight into the groups experiences of the care system.
At the end of the evening, the Madlove team made it clear that this is an ongoing project which they hope will bring together people to support each other. The Madlove team will be returning to Liverpool's FACT next month for exhibition 'Group Therapy: Mental Distress in a Digital Age'.
At the beginning of this piece I mentioned a special friend, because you don't have to be 'mad' to be affected by mental health illness. Good mental health is valuable to us all, and I for one support alternative spaces where people can get support and feel loved. My friend came along to this talk and we both enjoyed it alike, and I was taken a back by how many stories which seemed to sound just like hers.