Edinburgh Festival Fringe: A Gala for Mental Health

15 August 2016

At last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, mental illness was not only a big talking point but also an unlikely hot ticket, and the subject generated a huge amount of media coverage.  

One Sunday night, half way through the festival, all these performers came together for A Gala for Mental Health, a charity show at the Pleasance programmed by the Mental Health Foundation. It felt like a significant moment.
Live artist Bryony Kimmings told me that there was a real sense of camaraderie in the dressing room – here was a group of people who had all gone through similar difficult experiences and now felt able to talk about it publicly, bonding together.

We’re doing A Gala for Mental Health again this year, at the Pleasance on 17 August, with proceeds going to the Mental Health Foundation. This year it’s an all-comedy line-up – which is partly just a reflection of what seems to be on offer at the Fringe in 2016: there seem to be a lot more comedians then ever talking about mental health.

Bringing mental health into the mainstream

This may be partly the influence of comedians like Felicity Ward, who have managed to bring the most uncomfortable subjects into mainstream entertainment. It may also be something to do with Robin Williams, whose death cast a huge shadow over the 2014 Fringe and will continue to be in a lot of people’s thoughts each August – there’s another benefit show the week before ours with lots of comedians paying tribute to Williams.

Artists are good at forcing into the open an issue that society in general would prefer not to talk about – or, as Kimmings puts it, "airing dirty laundry to oil conversations on seemingly difficult subjects". It is one of the reasons why the Mental Health Foundation has been running its annual arts programme, the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, for ten years now. Theatre, comedy, music and other art forms have the ability to cut through stigma and taboos to offer another way to look at the world while, crucially, making this seem like a fun thing to do.

Mental ill health: more visible in the arts?

There is a slight risk in focusing on artists: if you’re not careful, people will conclude mental ill health is just something that happens to those wacky creative types. In the run-up to a radio interview at last year’s Fringe, I was asked what I thought of a recent study that suggested comedians have personality types linked with psychosis. My response was to politely sidestep the issue.

The idea that there is a link between creativity and mental illness is a persistent one, but if it is more visible in the arts, I suspect the reason is just that it’s a more accepting environment than 'mainstream' society. You probably won’t end your career as a comedian, actor or painter by admitting you have a mental illness, but you might if you're a bus driver, teacher or office manager.

This, for me, is why Kimmings' Fake It ‘Til You Make It stood out from a crowd of Fringe shows on the subject last year. It wasn’t Bryony, the wacky performance artist who had depression, it was Tim, the advertising account manager who had never performed in front of an audience before.

Tim is a classic example of a regular guy who was hiding his mental illness because of stigma – and it took an artist to make him stop. What persuaded him to do the show, he said, was the hope that his honesty might persuade other people like him to admit they have a problem too. Judging by the success of Fake It ‘Til You Make It – which is back on tour this autumn – it seems to have worked.

The 2016 line up

Our line up this year consists of our returning host Felicity Ward (who is doing another mental health-themed show this year); Susan Calman, who has just published a book about living with depression; Chris Gethard, who made headlines internationally in 2012 after writing a long and heartfelt letter to a fan who was contemplating suicide; Richard Gadd, whose new show promises "a fresh insight into mental illness in the modern age, perceived 'masculinity' and how something presented on the outside is not necessarily the truth on the inside"; and Martha McBrier, who, like Bryony, is spending her Fringe show this year telling a story from the perspective of a carer, describing the time she took a group of mental health service users to compete in a pool tournament.

Comedy is a particularly effective way to talk about mental health. Someone like Felicity can put an audience at ease straight away, cutting through a lot of the nervousness people feel around the subject.

It’s been fascinating, this past year, watching warm, likeable comedians like Felicity and Carl Donnelly using their own experience of mental illness as a subject for comedy. Neither, conspicuously, is using it as an opportunity to show off their darker, more serious side. They just think it’s funny. And in making audiences laugh with them, rather than at them, they normalise it. That’s progress.

For more information on A Gala for Mental Health, and to book tickets, visit https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/gala-for-mental-health