The Black Box in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter was abuzz with conversation at lunchtime on Wednesday 11th May, as those gathered in its Green Room did their bit to tackle stigma in relation to mental health ‘one conversation at a time’.

“great to hear such articulate and passionate voices of experience”. Feedback from attendee

The Mental Health Rights Network was delighted to hold the first screening of its film ‘Things Changed Because of Us’ as part of the Northern Ireland Mental Health Arts and Film Festival. This festival, now in its third year, aims to celebrate mental health as well as challenging stigma and mental health inequalities.

The ‘Things Changed Because Of Us’ film was made in 2015 by mental health rights activists, supported by PPR and working in collaboration with students from Belfast Met FE College.  It comprises a 15 minute film of inspiring personal testimony from people directly affected by mental health issues, talking about their involvement in campaigning for better mental health services. Members of the network all have personal or family experience of mental health issues and suicide/self-harm.

Kathy Gilliland, member of Mental Health Rights Network and Stephanie Green, Development Worker PPR then introduced the film. Kathy, who is featured in the film, spoke movingly about her own personal experience of mental illness and how it has impacted on both her and her family. She pointed out that people tend to think “mental health isn’t going to affect (my) family until one day it does”. She made a plea for more attention to be paid to the impact of mental ill health on the children of those affected as they are often overlooked. Kathy spoke about her motivation for getting involved with the Mental Health Rights Network “I was looking for somewhere to have my voice heard”. She reflected on what she had gained from getting involved, describing it as “a great experience”.

Stephanie Green, Mental Health Development Worker PPR then provided an overview of the work of the Mental Health Rights Campaign  Starting in 2006 with the establishment of the Belfast Mental Health Rights Group, the network has now grown to include members across Northern Ireland. Stephanie explained how PPR supports network members to use human rights tools to campaign for improved mental health services. She commented that at the heart of this work is the right of people to be heard and listened to.

Two notable examples Stephanie highlighted of where network members succeeded in securing that right were in the introduction of the Card Before You Leave Campaign (CBYL) appointments system at A&E for people in mental health crisis and the inclusion of mental health in the ‘Choose Well’ public information campaign.  Current issues of concern to network members include lack of information such as the Family Guide on mental health for family members and access to GP appointments.

The film itself featured a wide cross section of people, all with at least two things in common – personal or family experience of mental health issues and suicide/self-harm coupled with a desire to improve the mental health services that currently exist.  A common theme of all members featured was that of finding their voice and having their voice heard through their involvement in the network:

I lost my voice..I didn’t think I had anything to give but maybe I do” (Ruby)

I felt that because I was the mother of a daughter lost to suicide that I was a nobody, PPR let me see that people were going to listen to me” (Christine)

Network members also drew attention to the support and encouragement they got from connecting with people who had similar experiences “it was absolutely empowering to listen to other people talk about mental health”

The importance of focusing on concrete, meaningful change was emphasised “it (the network) helps you make small changes but effective changes” ( Karen)

A lively discussion followed the film screening with a wide range of issues being raised and discussed. These included the lack of resourcing of mental health services, the influence of research on mental health policy development, specific challenges in relation to diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder and the difficulty of getting appropriate services, mental health issues related to the legacy of the conflict including those affecting ex-military personnel and issues around GP services.

There was general endorsement from all present of a call made for the new Assembly to listen to people and increase funding for both youth and adult mental health services. Les Allamby, Chief Commissioner NI Human Rights Commission highlighted the displacement costs created by not resourcing mental health.

The Mental Health Rights Campaign and PPR would like to thank all of those who participated in this event. For more information on the work of the Mental Health Rights Campaign please go to http://www.pprproject.org/right-to-health