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Speaking Out

New project uses literature to challenge mental health stigma

The written word has the undisputable power to radically influence and change people’s lives.

The HEARTH Centre in Partnership with Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust (BSMHFT) and funded by Time To Change have launched a project to do just that: Change people’s lives through literature.

Thanks to the support from the trust, The Hearth Centre runs weekly ‘read-aloud’ groups, discussing novels, stories and poems. There are now 15 groups taking part across Birmingham and Solihull, which are facilitated by freelance actors and writers, NHS staff and people with lived experience of mental ill health.

 Participants are encouraged to reflect on what they have read or heard and discuss how it connects with their experiences. They are also encouraged to write creatively in response to the material they’ve just read.

New project uses literature to challenge mental health stigma

Following a successful bid to the Time To Change fund, the Hearth Centre is now managing a project called Speaking Out which will train people with lived experience of mental ill health to facilitate mainstream reading groups in libraries and other social and community settings, using poems and short stories to spark conversations about mental health.

None of the material addresses the subject of mental illness in a direct way. Instead fairytales and extracts from Shakespeare and Rumi to Carol Ann Duffy and Jackie Kay, Daljit Nagra and Andrea Levi and Dickens are used for their power to illuminate a whole range of human experiences and so reduce stigma by encouraging people to talk openly about mental health.

The Speaking Out project is managed by a steering group comprising two Hearth Centre staff members, a staff member from a BSMHFT community mental health team and three people with lived experience of mental ill health.  

Freda from the Sparkhill group said:
“Through this project I am hoping to bring awareness to the wider community regarding mental health and to help reduce stigma. I am also hoping to use the project to help me approach the African Caribbean community where mental illness is sometimes not fully understood. The benefits that the project brings are that it helps service users to build their confidence and project their own individual personalities.”
Hasmita from the Sparkhill group said:
“I love reading and felt that getting involved in the project would be a great way to read some great stories and to pass on the passion of reading to others in the community.
 
“Personally, being involved with the project and facilitating the sessions has made me aware of the vast amount of literature out there and just how much we still have to discover.  It's been a fun adventure and I'm still enjoying it. I am particularly interested in South Asian and British Asian authors and have read some great stuff by them, but I am not limiting myself just to these groups. It’s a personal choice and I am hoping to open the minds of others to the vast diversity of authors that we have around us.
 
“Since being involved in these reading sessions, I have seen how our group has grown in size and how much the participants enjoy the stories that are chosen.  Their confidence has increased and it a joy working with them and together we are sharing our love of reading.”

Dr Peter Lewis, medical director at BSMHFT said:
“Reading aloud is a wonderful way of getting people to share their perceptions of their inner experiences. Sharing literature encourages people to articulate their feelings without having to own them directly and this project will empower people with lived experience of mental ill health and those who haven’t been touched by it, to communicate about the inner aspects of their lives through the most engaging medium of all- stories!”

Jonathan Davidson, chief executive, Writing West Midlands said:
“The Hearth Centre’s Speaking Out project is a wonderful example of literature having a real impact on people’s lives. The opportunity to hear and tell stories, to use language creatively and to reflect on our own lives makes literature important and helps reduce the stigma of mental ill health. The work of the Speaking Out project is wonderful and necessary.” 

HEARTH Centre Director Polly Wright said:
“Everyone loves the experience of being read to. The shared reading approach encourages people to listen to stories, and talk about what they hear at the same time. This way people who have experienced some of the emotions and difficulties described in the stories and poems can communicate what it’s like to people who struggle to understand it. Not only does it break down stigma - it also brings confidence to the readers and is a lot of fun!”