Beyond Taboo

To celebrate the start of the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival , Nadine McBay explores the very different pressures affecting men and women’s mental health and the ways forward.

MARIEM Omari is not afraid of taboo. Aside from those around not being a criminal, common decency to others and good hygiene, they often serve to protect dominant people, or dominant ways of seeing the world. It’s the fear conjured by taboo that keeps stories hidden and people silent. Refuse to believe the trick and taboo loses its power. It is silence which can be scary.

As an activist-performer working in Middle East conflict zones, Omari worked with those we seldom hear about and hear from even less: victim-survivors of conflict-related sexual violence. With her 2016 hit play If I Had A Girl, a vibrant piece of dance-theatre based on verbatim accounts given by interviewees, she opened a door on to the hitherto hidden issue of domestic violence in Scotland’s asian communities.

This month sees her newest work One Mississippi, another verbatim play based on the stories of four men from different religious and ethnic backgrounds who have all attempted to take their own lives. It premieres at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre before performances at Glasgow’s Tron as part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival (SMHAF), now in its eleventh year.

“I felt compelled to do this for two main reasons,” Omari says. “There is my personal experience with significant men in my life who’ve had depression, such as my partner, or other forms of mental illness, including my own father, who I think had problems with severe anxiety and low self-worth.

“I wanted to understand this all more. The second reason was that, when I did the interviews for If I Had A Girl, the men said they had a lot of feelings of profound shame. One of them said if it wasn’t for his children, he wouldn’t be here. That, combined with those phenomenal statistics, is what spurred my research.”

Omari research mentor was John McCormack from the Scottish Recovery Network, a man who has spent the best part of 30 years working with people, predominantly men, experiencing various degrees of mental ill health.

“He’s found that by far the most common denominator of the people he’s worked with is childhood trauma, and it’s also the case that many people who go on to be abusive or be incarcerated have experienced profound trauma of some kind in childhood,” Omari says, noting that, while such experiences are by no means exclusive to men, there are differences in how men and women process such events throughout their lives.

And while the reasons why people develop mental ill health are as complex and unique as each individual, those “phenomenal” statistics are stark – and show a split between men and women. Women are twice as likely to experience mental ill health in general as men, and major depression in particular, with many pointing to the adverse effects of societal patriarchy on women’s experiences and their perceptions of identity and safety. Julia Taudevin, the creator of the acclaimed Blow Off, explores the impact of sexism on mental health in her new show Hysteria!, which premieres at Glasgow’s Oran Mor on October 9 before a stint at the Traverse.

It’s a subject of much interest as to why double the number of women have suicidal thoughts, while suicide is three times more common as a cause of death among men. This is why much of the focus on improving men’s mental health is on suicide prevention. But progress can and is being made. It’s testament to how far we’ve come in breaking the taboos around domestic violence and suicide that most of us don’t think it particularly radical that the Scottish Government has long-running national strategies on reducing both, bringing issues previously thought of as private into the sphere of public policy.

With a new Suicide Prevention Strategy due for publication in 2018, it will come, like the previous strategy, with explicit recognition that the issue affects us all. It will, the Scottish Government website’s says, “echo key messages – learned from practise and research – that suicide is preventable, that it is everyone’s business and that collaborative working is key.”

Official statistics put the percentage of people experiencing mental ill health at some point in their lives to be around 28 per cent. That’s you or someone close to you. Perhaps too, that common “one-in-four” figure is an underestimate in this era of crises and precariousness. And just as anyone can catch a cold or break a leg, mental ill health can be experienced by anyone, even acclaimed Shakespearean actors.

“I was a young man, I was going great guns at the RSC,” says Mark Lockyer, whose Living With The Lights On also features as part of SMHAF. “And then illness hit me in a way I could never imagine. Within two and a half years I lost everything. I passed through all the institutions: hospitals, prison, homeless hostels. And I didn’t understand how or why.”

It was while playing Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet for the Royal Shakespeare Company in the summer of 1995 that Lockyer suffered his first breakdown. Diagnosed as having bipolar, a condition commonly characterised by extreme highs and severe lows, he later took an idea of a show based on his experiences to Ken Campbell, a friend who’d taught him improvisation at Rada.

“That summer my life changed irrevocably,” Lockyer says. “Because of what I do my breakdown and illness was very public, and so my fall was pretty severe. This story covers my adventures from then. It’s all true and it’s all an adventure; ‘adventure’ doesn’t necessarily mean everything was a positive experience.

“It’s a one-man-show in the sense that it technically just is me on stage, but I don’t really like that term: it sounds as if I’m doing a ‘number’” he says. “It’s just a bloke standing up telling a story to people after he’s got them a cup of tea. There’s nothing theatrical about it. In fact, if you’re looking for something theatrical you might be disappointed. But if you’re looking for a good story – then, well.”

Lockyer recounts how he was once asked at a post-show Q&A what made him “so special” in doing the show, as if having lived his story wasn’t reason enough.

“My answer was: ‘nothing at all. There’s absolutely nothing. But unlike many of the people I’ve walked with, worn the same boots as, the difference is that I have a voice.’ Not everyone with bipolar disorder ends up where I did but some do. That’s why I tell my story. For all those people I met along the way that don’t have a voice, whose stories don’t get told.”

That altruistic spirit was shared by many of the interviewees Duncan Cowles has met so far while working on Silent Men, a new project inspired by his own difficulties communicating his inner emotional life to others. The first feature length documentary for the BAFTA Scotland-winning film maker, an excerpt will be shown as part of a workshop at Glasgow’s CCA on October 14. The event will be part of the festival’s men’s mental health day at the venue, which begins that morning with Men, Interrupted, a programme of short films from Scotland and abroad exploring the mental and emotional landscapes of men.

“A lot of people almost forced themselves to open up, because they knew it would help,” says Cowles, who has already spoken with men from across the UK about their own challenges and coping mechanisms. It’s far from finished, Cowles says, noting how he’s still looking for more men willing to talk.

“In general I’ve had a lot less resistance than I thought and a lot of men wanted to open up,” he says. “It was maybe because they didn’t know me, and they knew I wouldn’t know the people in their lives. It’s maybe because they felt they hadn’t had the opportunity to speak about these things before. But it’s not for everyone, and that’s OK. Not everyone wants to talk in public, which is what you’re doing on film.”

After the showing, suicide prevention organisation and workshop co-presenters Brothers In Arms and Cowles will discuss the ethics of working with potentially sensitive personal material and vulnerable interviewees, and the responsibilities incumbent on the documentary-maker in presenting their stories.

“What do you do when someone tells you: ‘I’ve never told anyone else that’, and you’ve filmed them?” he asks. “These are important questions. You can get disbarred as a lawyer for misconduct. Unlike being a lawyer or a doctor, there’s no regulations, no code for film makers to use, so I want to talk a bit about that. There are challenges but with men’s mental health being as it is, it is obviously important to tell these stories.”

There are encouraging signs though: over the period 2002-6 to 2012-16, the rate of suicide in Scotland reduced by 17 per cent. The number of deaths by suicide in Scotland in 2015 was the lowest in a single year since 1974. And, as women are beginning to make their voices heard in public life, men are beginning to give voice to issues and experiences they often felt must be kept private, that presenting as somehow unemotional and stoic was a key part of their identity as men. That old stereotype is exposed for the mistake it is in Brothers In Arms’s tagline: “being silent isn’t being strong” and the East Dunbartonshire-based organisation styles itself as “a safe place for men to talk about men’s stuff.”

Just in recent weeks, actor comedian Robert Webb has read his funny and very touching memoir How Not To Be A Boy on BBC Radio Four to much acclaim, relief and discussion. Two Scottish theatre-makers have also presented work addressing our dominant ideas about masculinity and mental health: Gary McNair with Fringe hits Letters To Morrissey and Locker Room Talk and Robbie Gordon, the principal performer in Wonder Fools’ Coolidge Effect, a play about pornography addiction showing as part of SMHAF at Stirling’s Macrobert Theatre.

As Richard Warden, film lead at SMHAF and programmer of Men, Interrupted says, things are changing.

“A well-received programme called Women, Interrupted was presented in 2016, but we didn’t start out with the intention of having the equivalent on males this year,” he says. “Instead, the day emerged very naturally from the increased proportion of films addressing men’s mental health that was submitted to the festival.

“In fact, we had trouble fitting it all into one day. I believe this reflects a growing and welcome willingness to open up on mental health. Perhaps the tide has turned.”

For some affected by mental ill health, recovery can feel almost impossible a time, a pie in the sky goal. But this is at odds with the figures: with the right support, up to two-thirds of people will recover from long-term mental health problems.

“I was talking to my community consultant,” says Lockyer. “I see him once every three or four months or so, and I asked him: ‘is there anything that you’d be keen for me to try and get across in my play?’ And he said: ‘Please, please tell them that people get better’. And they do.”

“I can live a normal life,” he continues. “I mean, here I am in my lovely flat overlooking London talking to you about taking my show to Scotland. That’s great. I’m very happy. I have a lovely girlfriend – we don’t live together but we’re very much together. I have money in the bank. I have much to be to be thankful for.

Lockyer adds: “The irony about my illness is that it restored my faith in the power of human kindness. It taught me that there is forgiveness, real forgiveness. I felt a lot of the time that people would judge me, that I would be branded a lunatic. And while a few people did that along the way, on the whole people were fantastic. So though the show is about illness, it’s also about getting better and moving on.”

Hysteria! Oct 9 to Oct 14, Oran Mor, Glasgow, and Oct 17 to Oct 21, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

One Mississippi, Oct 10 to 12, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh and Oct 13 to Oct 14, Tron Theatre, Glasgow

Men, Interrupted, Oct 14, 11am, free but ticketed, CCA, Glasgow

Men’s Mental Health Workshop with Duncan Cowles and Brothers In Arms, Oct 14, 3.30pm, free but ticketed, CCA, Glasgow

Living With The Lights On, Oct 17 to Oct 19, Scottish Storytelling Centre, Edinburgh, and Oct 20 and 21, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow

The Coolidge Effect, Oct 20, Macrobert Arts Centre, Stirling

Times and tickets via

Led by the Mental Health Foundation in partnership with a number of mental health organisations, NHS Boards and other bodies, The Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival runs across Scotland between October 10 and October 29




We really need your support to develop and we’d like to ask you to support us by donating to us here.

We’ve got big plans to launch our new site, to launch new publishing and events projects, and to extend our platform of writers – but all of this needs your support.

Bella Caledonia remains free (and ad-free) and takes us hundreds of hours a month to research, write, commission and edit.
If you value what we do, please consider supporting with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing.
GoCardless to set up a small monthly donation to support independent journalism in Scotland.

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published.

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.