CoolTan Arts is a mental health and arts charity that, in their own words, “believes mental well-being is enhanced by the power of creativity.” These walks in Hackney are part of the national health kick inspired by the Olympic and Paralympic games and held a stone’s throw away in Stratford. For many years now CoolTan has been running a similar project in South London called Largactyl Shuffle. The name came from an anti-psychotic drug that actually makes it difficult to walk, therein lies the joke.
While chatting away to volunteer coordinator Clara Jones in a café after one of our walks, we moved on to another query I had, their use of the phrase ‘mental distress’. I assumed this was now the P.C. term for mental illness but she explained that everyone involved at CoolTan has a say and had decided they wanted to refer to mental illness as ‘mental distress’. They felt everyone knows what it feels like to suffer mental distress so it was easier for more people to relate to and that mental illness had implied what was happening to you was part of you always. It is such a loaded phrase, once she explained this to me all this it made sense. Illness almost makes you think that once you had a bout of it you won’t be well again and why not have a say in the way you are described by other people?
It has been a ridiculous notion of mine that, apart from my personal interests in the project, I had come to help those suffering from mental distress and that I’d be able to differentiate them from the volunteers. I am always surprised when I find out I have a completely stupid preconception that I was totally unaware of. It was only when I realised how much I had gained from the walks and the positive affect that they had on me that I understood the mental health benefits the project for everyone involved. It was being outdoors, actually enjoying London, rather than rushing from A to B that had influenced my own mental well-being in such a way. Meeting new people, communicating and sharing an experience.
Not only did I learn about the architectural history but we discussed social history, mental distress and disability, changes in society and the effects of this on these issues. I met people I would never have met before, different ages, backgrounds and jobs and all of them lovely. We discussed buildings together, had a picnic and looked out onto the Olympic Park from a motorway bridge. All good stuff.
It only occurred to me when I was sitting down with everyone after my second walk that I had suffered from mental distress, depression to be exact. I don’t know how, but I had totally forgotten this even thought it went on for many years. I remember that at the time, the idea of being labelled as mentally ill was nearly as bad, if not as worse, as the depression itself. The stigma attached to it definitely made the experience worse for me.
Mental distress isn’t inherent in you, it’s something you suffer from and shouldn’t define you, or allow society to label you. By labelling people you pigeon hole them as a stereotype and take away the scope for them to be anything else.
You’re a Christian, you’re a schizophrenic, you’re a vegetarian. The letter ‘a’ usually describes a singular thing, removing that letter means viewing a person in a more open way. Take a look at that sentence again without the 'a'. I am Christian, I am schizophrenic, I am vegetarian.
People are more than one thing and CoolTan’s Community Legacy Walks reminded me of that. Things change, people get depressed, people have psychotic episodes and maybe they will happen again. But by no means should a person be defined by these occurrences no matter how often or infrequent they are. At the end of the day people are just people so lets all go out, take a walk, learn something new, we’ll all feel better for it!
CoolTan Arts annual sponsored walk is on Saturday Oct 13th and will celebrate World Mental Health Day and explore how labels and branding can create stigma against those with mental distress.
The next Community Legacy walk is Tuesday 16th Oct