One in 10 young people have a mental health diagnosis that often goes undetected and The Harts Theatre Company are passionate about providing quality educational resources to young people who have been affected by mental health.
Written and produced by actress, writer, choreographer and Harts Theatre artistic director and workshop facilitator Ann Akin, the film ‘Normal?’ centres on the theme of mental health and the untold story from a sibling’s perspective. This film has been developed in conjunction with the Harts Theatre ‘Normal?’ Education workshop, a mental health awareness drama workshop for young people ages 13-25.
The workshops combine performance exercises with role-play as a way of helping young people to develop an understanding of the mental health challenges that may arise in the life of the individual, their families and their community. Harts Theatre delivers free workshops in schools and colleges across London, U.K.
How is this film trying to challenge and redefine what we consider normal?
A lot of what we know or see about mental health focuses more on the illness rather than the effect that it has on the life of the person suffering and on their loved ones. I believe that Mental Health is very misunderstood and I wanted to use what I know and have experienced to shine a light on what it is like to live with a mental illness.
I chose to highlight both the person suffering from the illness’ and her sister’s points of view, showing both of their struggles. I did this because I wanted the audience to sit back and question what we as a society define as ‘normal’. From personal experience, I found that at times, we only focus on what the person with the illness is going through but there are a number of people affected. Throughout the film I show the audience how both sisters are struggling with finding a sense of normality in spite of the fact that we would automatically think that a person with good mental health is ‘normal’.
The sisters, Ashley and Ray, are racially different in the film. Is there a reason behind this choice?
Mental health can affect anyone of any age, race, sexual orientation, gender and background and for this reason, I chose to cast Ray and Ash from different racial backgrounds. It was my way to artistically show that it doesn’t matter who you are or where you are from, that anyone can suffer from a mental illness.
Why did you choose to focus on the perspectives of sisters? Why is there no mention of parents?
Ten years ago, I was 20 years old at university, and decided that I wanted to be an actress. I was an employee, a friend and a daughter living an everyday life and doing everyday things. Then my elder brother got sick. He got very sick and it was the first time in my life that I had been more aware than anything that I was a sibling and I had a sibling that needed to be taken care of. I didn’t understand this term mental health. I didn’t know the signs or symptoms. I didn’t know where to get help. Along with my older brother, I also have two younger brothers and together as a unit, we powered through this extremely painful and traumatic experience, learning as we went along what mental health is and how to deal with it. Although my parents were very much involved in what was happening and dealing with my elder brother’s illness, I was very aware of how it affected my younger brothers and me. We all were affected by my brother’s illness in different ways and reacted and have dealt with it in different ways. I wanted to focus on the story of young people, and in particular on how siblings are affected by having to deal with mental health issues.
It seems that Ashley struggles with psychosis or schizophrenia throughout the film. It’s interesting that you chose to never name Ashley’s condition. Is there a reason behind this decision?
I wanted the audience to focus on mental illness in general and to question their idea of normality. I was also trying to ignite a desire in the audience to educate themselves about it. I want the audience to focus on ill mental health as a whole rather than focusing on one particular illness.
Is there a reason why you chose to explore psychosis or schizophrenia?
The main reason I chose schizophrenia is that I am familiar with it and I wanted to write about what I knew. It was very important to me to stay true to the authenticity of mental health so I chose psychosis for that reason.
The saddest scene is when Ashley is taken to a mental hospital. Do you think Ray could have handled the situation better? Ashley is not convinced she needs help. What could have Ray done to make the transition more tolerable for her sister?
In reality, it is very difficult to handle a situation like that. I personally experienced it and know many others who have as well; the reaction from the person with the illness is similar in most cases. I feel that Ray did the best that she could but I also think it’s important for audiences to see that sometimes we have to make difficult decisions when caring for someone with an illness and we may not always handle every single decision that we make in the best way.
Ashley loses her friends after she gets sick. What is the message behind Ashley’s contemplation of friendship?
I think it is very difficult to maintain friendships when you are suffering with a mental illness because of the stigma, fear and confusion attached to the illness. The symptoms of a mental illness manifest themselves in human behavior and it can be very difficult at times for people to attach this to an illness. It’s not always easy to be a friend to someone who is suffering from mental illness, but I wanted to highlight the lack of compassion that can sometimes play a part in the downfall of friendships.
Ash feels very hurt and alone due to the fact that all of her friends have left her since she became ill and she just wants people to understand how hard it is for her and how much it is out of her control.
The sisters struggle to cope with mental illness; one of them directly and the other indirectly. Both of them feel a deep sense of isolation and guilt. Why do you think it is important to show both the direct and the indirect consequences of mental illness?
It was very important for me to show both the direct and indirect consequences of mental illness to give support for both sides. Speaking as a person indirectly affected by mental health, it took me many years to even own that I was affected by it. I spent a lot of time focusing on my sibling or everyone else and I neglected that I needed help and support too. I just wanted to highlight different viewpoints of the effects of mental illness.
Is there a resolution at the end of the film?
There purposely is no resolution at the end of the film because each situation is different. There is no happy ending. Sometimes there is and sometimes the ending is tragic. Regardless of how it ends, it is something that you have to learn to deal with on a daily basis. That’s how I wanted the film to end, where the audience doesn’t get a final ending but a continuation of life. The sisters leave the hospital and life goes on, they have to learn how to live and how to love regardless of mental illness.
What message do you want people to leave with after the film?
I want people to leave with the message that “mental illness is an illness like any other”. It can affect anyone, at any time, of any race, age or background. I want people to leave and view mental illness although so often invisible and ignored, as something visible. I want people to leave with more understanding and compassion.