An interview by Shaun Lambert...
I first met Ann through a contact at church and was intrigued to hear of her work in raising mental health awareness through drama. I also felt her focus on young people through her work was an important strand within mental health care. I met up with her for coffee to talk about her work. What she shared was fascinating so I sent her some questions so that what she told me could be shared with a wider audience.
Ann, tell ussomething about your career and work?
As well as being the Artistic Director of Harts Theatre Company (HTC), I’m also a professional actress. I trained part time at Sylvia Young when I was 11, went to the BRIT School, have a degree in Media Performance and also a post graduate in acting from Drama Studio London. I've been working professionally as an actress for over 10 years now and appeared in shows such as EastEnders, Law and Order UK, Humans and the Javone Prince Show (BBC2), I also pop up in the new series of Cold Feet which has just finished filming. And I am currently filming Citizen Khan and Crackanory.
But I am very passionate about working with young people and originally started as a dance teacher when I was 17 and have been working with young people ever since. Now young people are at the epicentre of the work that I'm most passionate about and what HTC does.
What sparked your interest in raising mental health awareness?
Personally, I have witnessed loved one really suffer and struggle with ill mental health and I experienced first-hand the darkness of being ignorant to what it meant, how to support someone who was ill and where to get help. I experience the terrible stigma that is attached to it and also walked in the fear. Most of the fear that surrounds mental ill-health comes from ignorance. We often don't get a chance to truly understand what it means and that needs to change.
How you do use drama and other media to raise awareness?
Drama/creative arts is my life's work and I wanted to combine both my passions. I wrote a play in 2011 called Normal? This is a story about 2 sisters. One who suffers from mental ill-health and the other who is her carer. They both spend the play longing to be normal. I used the play to highlight the themes and struggles that are faced by both the ill and the ones close by. I used it as a tool to start a conversation.
Normal? was then turned into a short 30 minute film with is an integral part of the workshop that I deliver. But I also use forum theatre as a tool to look at and dissect scenes within the film. I give people a chance to act out scenes and the audience can shout ‘stop’ and give suggestions of things that they would have done differently.
Tell us about your festival?
The ItAffectsMe:IAMNormal Festival saw my company, Harts Theatre Company join forces with mental health campaigner Laura Darrall and her viral campaign #ItAffectsMe. It was an intergenerational mental well-being arts festival where we partnered with NCS The Challenge and spent 2 months in the run up to the festival working with almost 100 young people to design elements of the festival.
The day consisted of music and drama performances as well as speeches from Time To Change, Jonny Benjamin and Angela Samata. There was a 'market place' with information and trading stalls and different interactive activities and also a range of free workshops for attendees to engage in.
What sort of stigma is out there in your experience when it comes to mental illness?
Although I do believe that we have come a long way in regards to society’s view and approach to mental ill-health there is still so much further for us to go. The stigma attached to it comes from the fear and lack of understanding and empathy regarding mental ill-health. People feel such shame and are forced to hide and remain silent due to a fear of being discriminated against or judged.
If the church stigmatizes a young person who has faith in God, what impact do you think that stigmatization has on their faith?
This is a difficult question to answer I feel as we all act and react in different ways. But I do think that the church really has a responsibility to care for the minds as well as the souls of their congregation both young and old. I think suffering from mental ill-health when you are a person of faith must be an extremely confusing situation to experience, and if that person is not taken care of or protected in the one place where they should feel safe, the church, then I imagine the impact could be very detrimental.
What message would you like to get across to the church?
That it's so important to care for the minds of the congregation but it’s also important to educate the congregation about mental health so that it is a collectively understood illness within the realms of spirituality. How do your beliefs affect how you act and react to mental ill-health? How do we talk about it? How do you seek help from the church? How can the church help or support?
These are some of questions that I believe need to be tackled and answered.
1. It's important to give the support needed for people who are suffering so that it doesn't contribute to a reason why their faith will be tested and in turn may turn away from their faith or beliefs.
2. I think the church, as well as society on a whole, has a really great responsibility to tackle mental health and provide understanding and support.
You can find out more about Ann’s work via her website and Twitter:
Ann Akin, is a professional actress, writer, choreographer, director and workshop facilitator.