The Other Side of Stigma

It is estimated that every 1 out of 4 people will experience a mental health problem in their lifetime.  Mental health refers to what we feel, as well as how we think and act. It is how we go about our daily lives, go to work, attend lectures, engage in meaningful relationships, and interact socially. 

The majority of us will experience a mental health problem at some point in our lives, but not all of us will go on to develop a mental illness. Let’s imagine a line where good mental health sits on one end, and poor mental health sits on the other. During a good week, we might find ourselves on one end, only to find ourselves moving towards the other end on a bad week. Say you have a deadline coming up at work or at school. It makes you feel worried and anxious because you cannot handle it on your own, but you do not turn to your colleagues for help. If that anxiety grows within you, you might find yourself experiencing poorer mental health. The very same thing actually happens with our physical health. 

When we notice changes in our physical health which may indicate we’re not well, we usually phone up our GP or go to the clinic to check it out. We might even take a few days off work until we recover. The question is, do we visit the clinic as readily if we notice these changes in our mental health? The number of people seeking help is on the rise and has increased steadily over the past years; however, we still continue to see many people refusing to seek help, with only 36% of adults with common mental health problems receiving treatment. Despite the continuous efforts to mitigate this in Malta, stigma still remains a big part of the reason why many fail to seek professional help. 

Stigma is a collection of thoughts or attitudes towards something or someone.  It is seen as a mark of disgrace, as though needing help (in this case, for mental health) is somehow shameful. So what effect does stigma have on us?

Stigma is a collection of thoughts or attitudes towards something or someone.

Stigma might hold a person back from even admitting their mental health problem to themselves. The fear of being misunderstood by those around them makes it less likely that they will reach out for help. These misunderstandings may lead to feelings of hopelessness and shame as people struggle to cope with their situation. Unfortunately, this may result in a wall being built between individuals and seeking help. Stigma affects people every step of the way, from diagnosis and all throughout treatment since there is a perceived shame around receiving treatment for mental illness. 

Stigma leaves a profound impact on how people feel about themselves and how those around them perceive them. The bright side is that a lot is being done about this, and a lot can be done about it on an individual level: that means you reading this! 

It starts with being aware of your own attitudes and behaviours. The way we speak can have a profound impact on the people around us. When we talk disparagingly or mockingly about an issue such as mental health, we are closing the door on that issue.  Being open about our mental state of mind can help overcome this taboo. Education also plays a big role in all of this — get to know the facts and educate yourself about mental illness. While you’re at it, educate those around you too; pass on real facts and positive attitudes. This may serve to challenge the myths and stereotypes we have unfortunately picked up along the way from society and the media. 

Support is crucial if we are to overcome mental health stigma

Finally — and possibly the most important point – support. Treat those around you with dignity and respect. Support those around you who may need it: offer practical help or ask what they need from you. Sometimes listening without judgement is enough. Normalise difficulties and issues, because even though they might not always be physically seen, everyone is fighting their own battles behind closed doors. 

If you or someone you know is struggling, reach out to us on our freephone 1770 or through our online chat OLLI.chat. We’re here 24/7.

This article was written in collaboration with the Richmond Foundation.

Creativity in a concrete jungle

Surrounded by ever-changing environments, it is crucial to take the time to pause and reflect. That’s exactly what Maltese-French artist Laura Besançon does in her exhibition Playful Futures — and she’s inviting you to play along. The exhibition attempts to refresh our perspectives on the changing contexts that are beyond our control.

Alone, Together

A highlight in the exhibition, ‘Alone, Together’, kicked off Besançon’s artistic research and practice. She invited residents of an apartment block to participate in an artwork, which she documented on video.

Besançon sent out letters to the residents of several tower blocks in London, where she was reading for a master’s degree at the Royal College of Art. ‘I told them to listen to a particular song on a particular night at a particular time and to play with their lights to the beat of the music.’

Fourteen buildings and lots of letters later, she succeeded, resulting in a musical and architectural piece of art that leaves viewers in awe. ‘By switching lights on and off, the structure of the building changed. Suddenly this building lit up, becoming a playground.’

It was all about creating a connection between people she didn’t know: ‘I wanted it to be a spontaneous moment between people who are literally living next to each other but might not even know each other. Especially in a city that’s all about work and rigidity.’

‘In terms of participation, I found it really intriguing; people just doing it for the sake of being part of something,’ she adds.

A photograph framed on a children’s school board, showing innocent yellow flowers on one side and dull apartment blocks on the other.

Inspiration

One of her main inspirations for Playful Futures was Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck, who designed over 600 playgrounds after the Second World War, 17of which remain today.

She travelled to Amsterdam to see and photograph the remaining playgrounds herself. The structures are minimal, and that’s what she likes about them: ‘They were meant to stimulate the kids’ creativity, because they were minimal structures. Nowadays, you’ll literally have the structure of a boat, leaving little to the imagination.’

To that, she adds: ‘It’s more important to imagine what things could be than what is literally said.’

When she was living in London, in a building surrounded by high-rises, her window offered a look into the world. Or better said, into these buildings. As she stared out, she noticed that something about the architecture was kind of musical.

The colours of the different curtains and lighting reminded her of music software, synthesizers, and drum pads. She discovered the similarities between the two: ‘There’s something about music and architecture — they share rhythm.’

As she talks about the beneficial psychological effect of music, she relates how she wanted to create a connection between people who live together in this concrete jungle but rarely take a moment to connect with each other.

About the documentation of her project ‘Alone, Together’, she says: ‘I was always inspired by what I saw, especially as a photographer. I want to show what is already there, but I ask myself how it can be manipulated or experienced in a different way. I want to play with it.’

Her idea of playing the same song in different apartments of the same building tied her architectural and musical ideas together, and she rediscovered where her art practice was headed.

She documented the artwork on video, and the musical and visual aspects come together to show the connection between single souls in the city. Without knowing whether their neighbours are participating, over 15 residents play their lights to the beat of the same song.

Besançon adds that she wanted to reverse back from videography to the real human experience. The artwork is documented on video, but it makes you wonder what it would have been like in real life, with real people.

‘The creation of a work between people creates a moment in history and a sense of place. A shared moment and a co-created artwork.’ 

Aldo van Eyck’s playgrounds, designed after WWII, photographed by Laura herself

Photography as an interactive medium

Being inspired by what she sees, Besançon realised she liked photography while studying Communications, though not in the way that it was taught. Instead, turning towards a fine art approach in researching her fields of studies and in the way she used photography as a medium. She stuck to photographing and learnt to become more expressive with the medium.

We walk past a photograph framed on a children’s school board, showing innocent yellow flowers on one side and dull apartment blocks on the other. This duality is emphasised as the viewer has to flip the board in order to see these two aspects.

Her photographs are framed and displayed in unconventional ways, with a hint of cheeky criticism towards construction and the built environment. Besançon invites viewers to walk around and through the exhibition, touching and altering things where they can, to engage in the structures.

‘I like to take photos and present them in original ways, inviting people to take action. We can show things in multiple ways. I try to break out of the frame.’

Art in society

About the role of artists in modern society, she says: ‘I focus a lot on the idea behind the work which usually develops from an intuitive reaction towards something, a gut feeling. It always has to have some kind of concept behind it.’ Playful Futures aims to address universal ideas, bringing them to people’s attention.

It shows how it takes someone to start something. Then there is a domino effect: from one person trying to create something, there’s a whole building switching lights to the beat of music. Every individual is important. ‘Without the individual action, there is no collective action/outcome,’ she says.

Playful Futures is also a suggestion to play. Besançon’s interactive way of framing and presenting her work allows viewers to take a stand. ‘It’s about raising awareness and expressing anger, in a way. But also to promote a discussion about the changing surrounding landscapes.’

In one particular work, she stacked vintage poker chips on top of each other, representing literal towers of money. In relation to the development of Malta’s environment, she said: ‘How do you show anger about money and towers? You smash them.’  

Besançon concludes: ‘I think it’s important to show these universal ideas. I make reference to action in the photograph — it could be the start of something, of a revolution. There is a kind of provocation in the work, which makes you wonder: what if things were different?’

Laura Besançon

To add to the exhibition’s aim of exploring these playful futures, the artist invited international collaborators she met in London to exhibit their work. These are Tom Lovelace (UK), Ignacio Barrios (Spain), Dawoon Kim (South Korea), Tom Medwell (UK) and Gökhan Tanrıöver (Turkey).

If you are ready to be challenged and excited to play, visit Playful Futures at the Valletta Contemporary. The exhibition is running until June 6. Find more info on the exhibition here and Laura’s facebook here.

An Ancient History of Bread (part one): the Child of Civilization

You’ve probably never given your lunch a second thought. How did bread become the worldwide sensation it is today? If one dares to go back in time, it is apparent how the consumption of certain foods came to symbolize the advancement of our species and the growth of civilization. In particular, staple foods like bread faithfully accompanied mankind like a puppy would its master.

Continue reading

Working to Live and Living to Work Health and Safety at Work

Work takes up half our lives, maybe more. Unfortunately, many people don’t have the luxury of enjoying their work. In Malta, just over a quarter of the population experience a high level of job satisfaction, while in Denmark this number is much higher. And with a growing emphasis on innovation and creativity in the workplace, it is even more crucial that workers find pleasure in their work.

Continue reading

Let’s Talk Abortion: MMSA Abortion Debate

Two weeks ago, I watched a debate organised by Malta Medical Students’ Association (MMSA). Under the theme of the legalisation of abortion, Doctors for Choice (DC) and Doctors for Life (DL) presented their cases. As you may have guessed from their names, DC are pro-abortion and DL are not.

Continue reading

Bees, pesticides, and better food

‘Until now, we have been destroying our planet. We have been abusing it as if we have a spare one.’ These were the words of António Guterres, the UN secretary general, speaking to global leaders at the One Planet summit in Paris. This year, he emphasised, must be the year that humanity is reconciled with nature.

Continue reading