Event review: Keeping Calm in Croydon at the Croydon Literary Festival

By - Thursday 14th September, 2017

Croydon’s first literary festival was the scene of a thought-provoking session on mental well-being

September 2017 is proving especially good for seeing Croydon at its best. The month-long Warhol Croydon event and the first Croydon Literary Festival together have really been putting our town on the map.

Croydon’s inaugural literary festival was a day-long event held on Saturday 9th September in the David Lean Cinema in Katharine Street. I was particularly interested in the sound of the second session, entitled Keeping Calm in Croydon, but must admit that I didn’t properly read the rubric and turned up expecting something locally-focussed, along the lines of how to deal with the stress arising from encountering threatening groups of males in Queen’s Gardens, or the impact of the seemingly endless battle against anti-social behaviour behind the flats where I live!

Instead we were presented with something far more wide-reaching, very important and hard-hitting. The first speaker was Sunday Express editor Martin Townsend, whose father suffered from bi-polar disorder. Martin has written a book about his relationship with his father, The Father I Had, which won MIND‘s Book of the Year award in 2008.

We discussed how many people suffering from depression self-medicate

As Sunday Express editor, Martin was inspired to take up the campaign for better mental health awareness by an appalling Sun newspaper headline in 2003. ‘Bonkers Bruno locked up’, it read, above a story that referred to former boxer Frank Bruno as a ‘nut’ following his admission to a psychiatric hospital.

Martin told us the story of his father’s illness, which resonated with me as I have a friend who suffered from the same illness (happily well controlled now). One of the more humorous memories was his father playing Thunderclap Newman’s ‘Something in the Air’ over and over again. In my friend’s case, the track was the Jacobites’ ‘Pin your Heart to Me’. I was impressed with Martin’s powerful, occasionally emotional account, and it was good to see socially responsible reporting and campaigning from the Sunday Express, especially given the sometimes nasty anti-immigrant headlines peddled by its daily cousin.

Our other speaker was actor Joe McGann, who appeared in the film Property of the State, based on a true story of a disturbed young man seen through the eyes of his sister, Ann Marie. Continued failures by the authorities eventually led to a tragic end.

Police attending a public order offence are much more aware nowadays that mental health issues may be involved

Joe spoke of his battle with depression, making the point that men seem more reluctant to address such issues (an argument that I agree with, but which was challenged during the Q&A session by another audience member). Joe discussed how so many people self-medicate, which does not only refer to excessive drinking or drug use but also, for example, to obsessive use of the gym. Surely “I don’t feel right if I haven’t been to the gym” cannot be right, in the same way that it would be not right to hear someone say: “I don’t feel right unless I have ten pints of beer”.

Joe referred positively to Paul Broks’s book, Into the Silent Land, a selection of case studies in neuropsychology and thoughts on neurological impairments. He also praised comedian Ruby Wax’s tireless work in bringing mental health issues to the forefront. Her personal experiences of depression informed her one woman show, Losing It, and she has become a leading speaker and writer on mental health matters, including an appearance at TEDGlobal 2012, and her book Sane New World: Taming the Mind.

Joe made the point that dialogue is a very beneficial component of treating mental disturbance, and should form part of the holistic way of treatment, rather than merely relying on heavy prescribing of drugs. It was also interesting to hear that the police are now far more aware that when they are called to a person on the street who is perhaps acting aggressively, an ambulance to take the person to hospital may be more suitable than immediate arrest.

We obsess about our physical health, but not about our mental health

The session concluded with a number of perceptive questions from the audience, including whether the current obsession with being online all the time and the heavy use of social media can in some circumstances increase the risk of mental illness. The consensus was that it is dehumanising to have all conversations on line, and also that the volume of traumatic material on social media sites, and the ready access to this material by people of all ages, can be a contributing factor to mental health problems. A very valid point was also made that some of us obsess about physical health, but not mental health.

This was a very thought-provoking and interesting session, and we were left with the point that people suffering from mental illness are far more often a risk to themselves than any threat at all to other people. I found it particularly helpful to see these issues being addressed directly in Croydon. I was also pleased that the sessions I attended during the literary festival were all full. Congratulations to Clair Woodward and her team for putting on such an inspiring and challenging event.

Steve Thompson

Steve Thompson

I have been a Croydon resident for over 30 years, and have recently retired from a career in banking. Whilst appreciating many aspects of the regeneration of Croydon I do have a number of concerns about its effects. My main interests are rock music, walking, travel, and last but not least, good pubs and quality beer!

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