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Special report: SICK! Festival shining spotlight on taboo subjects
8:00am Sunday 2nd March 2014 in News
Everyone has experienced difficult moments in their lives which help shape them into the people they are.
Some of these moments may revolve around when they were growing up and their struggles with puberty.
For others it could be how they entered a period of deep depression, how they have coped with getting older, or the way they handled the loss of someone they loved after they fell terminally ill.
Many issues can often remain hidden, taboo or misunderstood, and the aim of the Sick! Festival is to shine a spotlight on these and get people talking and thinking.
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Festival organisers have not just been working with artists and performers.
They have also been in contact with GPs, academics, NHS workers and experts from the Brighton and Hove Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) and the city council’s public health team, who have contributed to and helped shape the festival.
There will be a wide range of performances, films and visual artworks covering the four themes of adolescence, mental health, ageing and death.
Some of the events are funny, some moving and others extremely provocative, but they all have one thing in common – they will make the audience stop and think.
Insights There will also be short talks by doctors and medics running alongside performances, so audiences can get some factual insights too.
Tim Harrison, festival director of development, said: “A festival like Sick! is never going to cure anyone of an illness, stop us ageing or even significantly help anyone experiencing mental illness.
“We are realistic about that. What it can do is get people talking about issues.
“There are so many things that happen in life that are difficult, traumatic and challenging.
“These things often end up hidden and this festival really does affect how people experience those things.
“It can also say to people ‘you are not alone’, these things are real and many people are going through similar experiences.
“In a way, things like adolescence, mental illness, ageing and death, the themes of this year’s festival, are very personal, but they also bind us together.
“Everyone has a story to tell, a question or concern, whether it’s about themselves, a family member or a friend. It’s been really rewarding to see how people are really keen to engage with these ideas.”
Those working behind the scenes include Clare Mitchison, a public health specialist in mental health at the city council.
She said it was important to highlight mental health, as problems are more common than people realised, with one in four of us expected to have a problem in our lifetime.
More than 30,000 adults in the city have a diagnosis of depression recorded by their GP and more than 3,000 have been diagnosed with a severe mental illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
The city also has high rates of suicide and self-harm and mental health has a big impact on families and communities, workplaces and the local economy.
Ms Mitchison said imaginative challenges to our understanding of mental illness can help us to address the stigma still attached to the issue.
Lack of information about mental illness and fears about discussing it may prevent people from accessing support and treatment.
She said: “Generally, attitudes are becoming more accepting, as shown by surveys of attitudes towards mental illness among adults in England, carried out over the past two decades.
“More people now than in 2009 agree that they would be willing to continue a relationship with a friend with a mental health problem, to work with someone with a mental health problem and to live nearby to someone with a mental health problem.
“There is increased interest in happiness and mental wellbeing. In the same way that we can protect our physical health with exercise and eating well, we can protect our mental health by nurturing our friendships and social connections, by giving to others, noticing the present, staying active and learning new things.”
Christa Beesley, a GP and chief clinical officer at Brighton and Hove CCG, has been providing expert advice on end of life and palliative care.
She said: “So often we hear that families, friends and other people coming to terms with someone dying just don’t know what to say or how to say it.
“Sometimes even health professionals report not knowing the best way to approach sensitive subjects or issues.
“We want to try to break some of those taboos about death and dying and tell people it is okay to talk about their feelings.
“We want people to start having conversations about the end of their life earlier rather than waiting until they are unwell.
“Talking about death isn’t about giving up on hope, it’s about living your life until you die.
“None of us know what’s around the corner, so it’s much better to talk about our wishes with the people we care about.
“That way if a time should come when circumstances place them in a position where they have to speak for us, we can be reassured that they know what we would want.”
Kerry Clarke, a public health commissioner for young people in the city, said involving young people in festivals like this was vital.
She said: “The role of the arts to promote health and wellbeing is well documented. The arts have been widely used in health care for therapeutic purposes and within communities to communicate messages about health.
“We have been developing opportunities for young people to engage in arts for a number of years.
“It was therefore natural that we became involved in the Sick! Festival.
“Adolescence is widely recognised as a critical stage in an individual’s life, with the formation of independence and exploratory behaviours.
“The arts are a great way to engage and work with young people and help them address issues around health and wellbeing that may be otherwise difficult for them to talk about – it has been shown to be a powerful medium in that respect.
“The festival is for all ages and brings together the wider community.
“It is an excellent opportunity to raise the community’s awareness of the issues that may be more specifically related to young people’s health and wellbeing.
“The festival will present work that involves young people and draws directly on their experiences. It will explore life issues challenging young people today and will enable the audience to see how these can be tackled and turned around.”
Control Annie Alexander, public health programme manager, said the theme of ageing is particularly important as those aged 65 and over are the fastest growing population group in England.
She said: “Older people are not a homogenous group and growing old is not the same as growing infirm.
“People can take some control over their ageing and there is solid evidence that promoting physical and mental health in older people prevents or delays the onset of disability.
“It’s important to actively promote positive images of ageing, and encourage participation and engagement by older people in public and community life.
“Active participation and positive depiction of older people in festivals such as this help to challenge the stigma attached to growing older and raise the profile of older people in the city.”
Ms Alexander said there was a mixed picture when it came to attitudes towards ageing.
She said: “Our culture in this country is obsessed with youth, and we associate old age with decay, illness and loss – the loss of our health, the loss of our loved ones, and eventually the loss of life itself.
“Unlike other societies around the world, where the old are revered and seen as wisest, we tend to sideline the old.
“It’s almost as if, since we value appearance so highly, we’re embarrassed by their age-worn faces and bodies.
“However, research shows that happiness levels start to rise after 50 and so long as they are in fairly good health, 70-year-olds throughout the world are on average as happy and mentally healthy as 20-year-olds.
“So we shouldn’t fear old age, as it can be a time of liberation and lightness – and above all, of true wellbeing.”
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