“The problem is having this idea of what is normal … as if we should all be aspiring to be normal”

By Izzy Ardron

The North East has the highest suicide rate in England. 76% of people in the UK that died by suicide in 2014 were men. These figures were released by the Office for National Statistics last year. And it is these figures that Durham mental health charity RT Projects is working to change.

RT Projects was set up seven years ago by the team of Emma Beattie and Beano Flude. From their art studio in Gilesgate, the pair run various workshops aimed at improving mental health.

The charity’s slogan, ‘Using art to save lives’, emphasises their focus on suicide prevention. As part of this work, they often work with those living with mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression.

Beano emphasises that “suicide is the result of a long series of events, a downward spiral,” which RT works within all its stages in order to prevent suicide.

Emma and Beano see art as having a number of roles in improving mental health. The workshops provide a community for those experiencing isolation, a common symptom of conditions such as depression and anxiety, which often provokes social withdrawal.

The art can also provide a sense of purpose and improve self-esteem, working to “give you a goal in life, an achievable goal”. Beano also stresses that “art is a language… a way of communicating,” and often helps the people they work with to express feelings or experiences they cannot communicate verbally.

There was something in the art that helped me to get back up

Emma and Beano’s belief in the therapeutic link between art and mental health is based on a combination of scientific research and personal experience.

Beano recalls how he experienced depression “many, many years ago – I like to describe it as falling out of my tree”. Having withdrawn from society, stopped eating, and “lived in a sleeping bag for months,” it was art that prompted his eventual recovery.

He describes how one morning, he got out of bed and primed a canvas white, timing the 10 minutes it took to perform this task. He recalls how “subconsciously, I knew the next day I had to get out of my sleeping bag and do more than 10 minutes.”

Increasing the time spent on his art every day, Beano eventually worked up over the course of months to the “turning point” of completing an eight-hour working day.

Having “felt there was something in the art that helped me to get back up,” Beano’s experience eventually inspired the creation of RT Projects.

Part of the RT’s philosophy is based on Emma and Beano’s recognition of “a perceived need for an alternative to pharmaceutical interventions” to combat poor mental health.

Whilst drug-based therapies can help alleviate the symptoms of mental health-related conditions, Emma and Beano believe they often fail to tackle the underlying cause.

Beano suggests that a drug “isn’t a cure, it’s a mask”. He maintains that “most of the problems we see are the result often of childhood trauma,” and that “any drugs or chemicals [can’t] impact on that”.

Improving male mental health, and the appalling male suicide rate in the North East, is a particular focus for the charity. The ‘Men’s Shed’ workshops give men a community, where they can discuss and process their experiences.

This aims to combat a tendency Emma identifies: “Men don’t go out to seek therapeutic experiences’. Compounding this inherent male reticence, the pair believe the loss of traditional working communities in industries such as coal and steel has limited natural social support networks for men.

In a recent search of local provision, Beano found “there were fifteen women’s services in one form or another and there wasn’t one male support group” aside from the ‘Men’s Shed’.

The pair also discuss wider cultural factors impacting on male mental health nationwide. Emma decries “the expectation on men to behave a certain way and to just put a brave face on”.

She identifies that problematic concepts of masculinity are taught to children from an early age, told that ‘big boys don’t cry’. These lessons are then perpetuated into adulthood, epitomised by maxims such as ‘man up’.

Society wrongly teaches young people that if you don’t do well, you’re not going to get a job and what’s going to happen then, your life will not be worth living.

Student mental health is also a concern addressed by Beano and Emma.

Emma believes that society wrongly teaches young people that “if you don’t do well, you’re not going to get a job and what’s going to happen then, your life will not be worth living”, resulting in “horrendous” pressure for students to perform.

When discussing strategies for helping a friend, colleague, or relative experiencing poor mental health, Emma and Beano are clear in their advice.

“Get help, don’t do it by yourself,” is their clear message, advising students to seek help from their college and welfare reps, or come to RT themselves. 

In Beano’s experience, “with suicide the big misconception is that if you think someone’s in a dangerous place or not well that if you… mention the word suicide, they’re going to think oh, I hadn’t thought of that,” whereas, usually, “it’s buried deep inside and all they want is somebody to listen”.

However, whilst listening to a suicidal friend and talking to them is important, Emma advises that you “should make clear that they can’t keep it to themselves.”

Emma emphasises that it’s likely the person supporting someone contemplating suicide “will probably also need to be counselled” to help deal with their demanding role.

Some of the people who read this are going to be struggling. Seek support

She suggests it is also often vital to disclose the situation to support services for the suicidal person themselves: it is important to “get them to recognise that they are a danger to themselves and that we want to look after your life”.

In order to tackle mental health issues effectively going forward, Emma and Beano emphasise destigmatisation. Emma warns against putting mental health conditions “into boxes where some are cool and some aren’t,” calling for a wider recognition and acceptance of the full spectrum of mental health issues.

Looking to the future, RT Projects would like to extend its existing links with Josephine Butler, St John’s, and Hild Bede colleges throughout the University.

They are hoping to provide advice on mental health and wellbeing, and, crucially, pass on suicide intervention training to college welfare teams and individuals.

Beano offers one final piece of advice. “Some of the people who read this are going to be struggling. Seek support. Say, and seek help.”

If any readers would like to get involved with the work of RT Projects, contact them by email or Facebook. They are looking for any skills, but particularly people able to help with IT and social media.

Their ‘Run to the Sun’ fundraiser (a 24-hour relay race to raise funds for the charity) will be on 16th/17th June 2018. See www.rtts.org.uk for more details.

RT Projects recommend Papyrus, Samaritans and CALM (a charity dedicated to improving male mental health), in addition to themselves, for those seeking help and support.

Photographs: RT Projects

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