Physical theatre meets mental health

Production image from  Institute

Production image from Institute

Following Gecko’s Wellcome funded project around Institute in Autumn 2016, Ezra Hewing, Head of Mental Health Education at Suffolk Mind, wrote the following article reflecting on the experience.

A project involving Gecko, a physical theatre company based in Ipswich, and charity Suffolk Mind has resulted in a new approach to addressing mental health.

Following a successful tour of their performance, Institute, which explores the themes of men’s mental health and what it means to take care of somebody, Gecko approached Suffolk Mind in February of 2016, initially seeking support with enabling their audiences to further explore the issues raised in Institute. But having attended training which introduced Suffolk Mind’s approach to mental health, they decided to take things further.

At the core of Suffolk Mind’s approach is the understanding that we all have emotional needs which have to be met for us to stay mentally healthy, and that we have the innate resources – skills and tools we are born with – to meet those needs. Gecko delivers physical theatre workshops all over the country and wondered whether their particular, visceral style of work could be a successful vehicle for people to explore their emotional needs and methods of caring for them.

Gecko was awarded a grant from Wellcome to devise and deliver a programme of ancillary activities around the autumn 2016 tour of Gecko’s production Institute to engage audiences with issues around mental wellbeing arising in the show.

The project involved four venues, Quay Place in Ipswich, HOME in Manchester, the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton and Liverpool Playhouse and was targeted at working age men with or without mental health challenges, who were non-traditional theatre attenders.

The programme included watching the performance; attending a post-show discussion with local expert mental health service providers and users on the panel able to answer mental health related questions; and participation in a specially developed physical theatre workshop combining Gecko’s physical theatre methods and Suffolk Mind’s work on Emotional Needs, created and delivered by Amit Lahav, Gecko’s Artistic Director, Helen Baggett, Gecko’s Associate Director and Ezra Hewing, Head of Mental Health Education at Suffolk Mind. Each performance was attended by representatives from the local Mind or similar mental health service providers to offer support and share information about available services.

A free programme was created and given to every audience member with information about Institute, Emotional Needs, an article commissioned from Simon Anderson and Julie Brownlie, debating a possible correlation between the decline in industry and a rise in male mental ill-health and local mental health resources.

The project aimed to increase self-awareness of mental health issues and provide the knowledge and tools to help participants learn to support their own emotional needs leading to improved mental wellbeing. It also aimed to help break down barriers to engagement with local mental health providers, have a positive impact on reducing stigma attached to seeking help, and to consider any link between a decline in industry and a rise in male mental ill health. Evaluation was carried out immediately following a performance, post-show discussion, and workshop with the option of participating in a case study and being interviewed one month and three months later to measure immediate and longer term benefits. While researchers had expected positive outcomes, given the experience of the workshop leaders, they were taken aback by the results. One participant fed back that the  workshop “should be put on prescription on the NHS,” while another commented “my friend, he’s been in psychotherapy …, and he said in that two hours he did more work than in those eighteen months.”

Another suggested a reason for the success of the workshop was the creation of “an environment of trust, and of safety and of community.”

It was clear that physical theatre workshops were highly effective interventions for increasing self-awareness and engagement with learning on how to care for their emotional wellbeing; and for supporting emotional connection in people who have difficulty making said connections:

“I put walls up and what struck me was that there were no walls while I was doing that (eye contact) piece. I stripped myself totally bare  …  And … it felt ok.  So maybe it’s ok and I’m ok and I’m safe to start doing that in everyday life.  In friendships, in relationships, just in general.”

That physical theatre intervention can be effective means of communicating, through an immersive experience, the reality of mental ill health; and specifically, communicating the struggles of male mental ill health to women.

“The portrayal of emotion through movement was beautiful and thought-provoking. It highlighted how men verbally hide their emotion.  It showed how vulnerable men can be, no matter how much they distract from that.  The inclusion of foreign languages helps portray this verbal barrier men put up between each other.”

Everybody who completed a questionnaire agreed that it had increased their awareness of their emotional needs and ways in which they could look after them. 74% identified positive changes they planned to make, and one month later 81% had experienced an improvement in their wellbeing, which they said was as a result of the workshop, and this improvement was maintained after three months. The results convinced the Gecko-Suffolk Mind partnership that it would be valuable to continue the workshop programme beyond the tour of Institute. Having run it as a standalone at Latitude Festival in July, they are now exploring making it available at sixth forms and colleges, in light of the recent attention drawn to the rising mental ill health challenges of teenagers and young people.

Ezra Hewing, Head of Mental Health Education, Suffolk Mind.