Although mental health activism nowadays is rife, it can still feel like we have not got very far in understanding the different disorders. There are those who will dismiss mental illness as over-sensitivity, while others reduce it under the “crazy” label. It is tough to open up about your own illness when you know you might not be in a supportive environment, and this silence also makes it difficult for the inquisitive to learn how to be helpful. Real Talk Storytelling is bridging that gap through its own take on art therapy, which is being presented as part of the Edinburgh Student Arts Festival.

Real Talk is a relatively new venture that helps people frame their experiences into a storytelling performance. In workshops prior to the event, participants are taught a variety of storytelling tools to express their struggles with mental health. You can see how this would be helpful – channeling traumatic events into a creative venture, and then engaging in a sort of talking therapy in the performance. Each participant at ESAF’s event is visibly relieved at the end of their story. Whether that is because they have overcome their stage fright or successfully talked out their demons, the act of sharing an often stigmatised story must feel empowering.

The performance is useful for the audience too, as each story and the follow-up discussion deepens our understanding of what pressures the mentally ill face. Thorny issues like the relationship between medical staff and patients are broached, and it is heartening to hear one of the participants, Gareth, approach this topic from both sides of the argument. As an ex-patient and, later, member of medical staff, he understands both that schizophrenic patients need some form of pastoral care and that the staff need to maintain a professional distance between their work and emotional life. How you breach that impasse, he does not know, but opening the discussion is a start.

From a creative point of view, it is interesting to see what motifs reappear throughout the stories and how participants choose to frame their experiences. Some stories are frank and realistic, whilst others are overtly abstract and metaphorical. There is a sense that some participants use symbols as a way of distancing themselves from their story, which Gareth confirms in the follow-up discussion. Apparently this is his second time taking part in Real Talk. At his first session, his story was clouded in fantastical elements. After taking part once, he is now brave enough to face his history with mental illness head-on. His experience, perhaps more than anything else, shows just how powerful narrating your personal story can be.