Unfiltered Talks: mental health out in the open

Meaningful connections in a digital age

Unfiltered Talks is a series of events founded by Amazing Minds, WeAreASSIF and 0161Marketing ‘in an attempt to Empower, Inspire and Improve direct and indirect sufferers of mental health issues‘.

The Unfiltered Talks banner declares ‘Empower, Inspire, Improve’, and the line up of panellists delivers on this message, but gave so much more.

This event has a distinctive flavour – an openness and honesty that many speaking line ups don’t often allow space for.

Beth Wilshaw from mental health startup WeAreASSIF artfully mixed direct questions from audience members with those submitted through online platform slido.com (this also allows anonymous questions).

The speakers

Each guest took a few minutes to tell their story, each speaking honestly about their lived experiences of mental distress, as well relating this to the suffering of friends and family and wider society.

Emilia Kolbjørnsen – Manchester Girl

AKA @itsAmeliaKoko, Emilia who is a marketing specialist, spoke about her difficult and disjointed childhood growing up in different countries and struggling to find her place in the world.

From her teenage years depression and anxiety followed her around as she moved from one country to another.

Working hard and playing hard took their toll and Emilia took stock of her support network with a ‘friends cleanse’. She says:

Diet is so much more than what you’re eating. It’s what you’re seeing and experiencing, including the people around you.

It was at this point she connected with women’s friendship network Manchester Girl where she now volunteers as community manager.

While Emilia urges others to watch their ‘mental hygiene’ with social media, she’s also keen to point out the abundance of opportunities our online connections can bring in terms of friendship and community.

You can hear Emilia speaking to Bilal Jogi in the latest edition of the Amazing Minds podcast.

Bilal Jogi – Amazing Minds

Bilal (@iambilaljogi) talked with welcome openness about his history of panic attacks and anxiety. He’s researched a wide range of drug-free approaches to managing his condition, including vitamin and mineral supplements which he feels have helped him a lot.

It’s taken time for Bilal to find the things that help his anxiety and he’s put much time and effort into understanding the thought processes that underpin his panic attacks.

He warns others not to use online advice to self-diagnose by searching for answers online:

People want quick answers – it’s a huge problem because people google symptoms, but we’re vulnerable. Don’t do it. Be careful what you read and listen to.

Omar Latif

Omar is about to launch WeAreASSIF a new platform which empowers people to manage their own mental wellbeing by engaging with artificial intelligence (AI) tools and innovative approaches to content delivery.

I had heard Omar speak before about the loss of a very close friend to suicide. This time expanded on the impact of this experience, readily expressing the negative effect these events had had on his mental health.

WeAreASSIF is at a very exciting point as the app prepares for launch later this year. Although social media is a vital part of product promotion, Omar worries about the effect it’s having on our minds:

It’s scary how the need for [social media] validation changes us. It can be a ‘bad garden path’ to poor mental health. These apps are keeping people hooked – delete and unfollow!

A very healthy evening

Unfiltered Talks had a very different feel to many evening speaking events. By keeping speaker introductions brief there was lots of time and space for questions and chat.

The size and intimacy of the venue were just right and comments from the audience were welcomed and responded to, the atmosphere was more friendly debate than straight content delivery from the speakers.

I certainly came away feeling uplifted and I’m very much looking forward to the next Unfiltered Talks event.

Photographs courtesy of Unfiltered Talks / Amazing Minds.

You must be Barking (Tales)

Picture courtesy of Harriet Dyer / Barking Comedy

I’m not quite sure when I came across stand-up comedian Harriet Dyer, but I think it was nearly five years ago at the Addictive Comedy night (alas no more) at Nexus Art Cafe in Manchester.

Harriet spoke candidly but hilariously about her history of mental illness and addiction to alcohol. Sometimes it’s the darkest material that can bring a sense of connection with the audience.

Strangely, the very next day it turned out I was in the same train carriage as Harriet and I took the liberty of introducing myself. We had a good old gossip and found out we have lots in common.

She told me about the monthly comedy night she’d set up called Barking Tales and how it was a haven for the socially awkward – including herself!

The rise and rise of Harriet Dyer

I continued to follow Harriet’s progress, mostly from a distance as I like going to bed quite early. I saw her appear on BBC Ouch, and rack up a series of Edinburgh shows and start to get recognition for her work.

Most recently, Barking Tales won a City Life award for Best Comedy Night in Manchester. When I read a BBC piece about Harriet’s work I decided it was finally time that I postponed bedtime and got down to the gig.

Light, sound and giggles all round

There are several things that makes Barking Tales more inclusive than most comedy nights. Doors open at 7pm and the show finishes around half past ten. There’s no ticket price but you are asked to ‘pay as you feel’ on the way out.

I arrive just as the show is kicking off. I am delighted to see that there is full, but not too full house for the three acts due on that night.

The place feels instantly welcoming and I take a seat towards the back. I am sitting next to Vanessa and Geoff who have clocked I’m taking notes. I tell them I have a mental health blog and they become my gig buddies.

As Harriet takes to the stage she’s at pains to make sure the audience are comfortable. Nothing’s too much trouble. The lights are adjusted at the request of a couple of punters and the sound levels are also sensitively altered during the evening.

The line-up…

First up is Scott Gibson who is preparing for his Edinburgh show. A straight-talking Glaswegian, Scott references his own dark moments before launching into a routine that can only be described as going from self-deprecating to self-defecating.

Lindsey Davies lives locally in Leigh but is recovering from a panic attack on the way back from a trip to Amsterdam. She talks about her anxiety disorder before riffing on her son’s ADHD, being a ‘Grandma’ at 42 and getting back in the dating game only to be branded a ‘cougar’.

Steve Harris quips about childhood Tourettes and losing weight as an adult. He lunges from harsh 1970s parenting to strange incidents in the gym. Steve plays the guitar (a bit) and his style reminds me of Graham Fellowes creation John Shuttleworth (in a good way).

Can I go to Barking Tales?

Barking Tales comedy night logo.

You totally should. I went on my own on a Wednesday evening in central Manchester and had a lovely time.

Yes, you can. The best place to find out information is on the Barking Tales Facebook Page or by following Harriet Dyer on Twitter.

You can also find more Harriet Dyer goodness on her regular podcast Don’t Worry, Bi (Polar) Happy on Podbean, Stitcher or Apple iTunes.

Psst…

Harriet did this rather stunning interview with comedian Sofie Hagen on her Made Of Human podcast. Harriet talks about her mental health history and how Barking Tales is an open space for people who are different. There are trigger warnings.

Soaking up the Gong Bath

martyn-zoe
With gong practitioner Martyn Cawthorne at his home Gong Spa

It is Saturday and a rainy Manchester afternoon and, along with two friends from Manchester Bliss group, are visiting the home of Martyn Cawthorne – gong practitioner and founder of Gong Spa.

Martyn gives the three of us a warm welcome before inviting us to prepare for the ‘gong bath’ which we have all enthusiastically signed up for.

What is a gong bath?

He describes the experience as:

“A unique experience in which you are bathed (clothes on!) in the sounds and vibrations of the gongs, which lend themselves to enhanced states of well-being, relaxation, happiness and pleasure.”

I’d had one previous experience of taking part in a large gong bath in a church hall, but what Martyn has to offer is a small, safe and intimate space which could be shared by up to three people.

The space is calm and softly lit, with four impressively large gongs suspended from a frame in the room and another resting on the floor. Other instruments are scattered around the room and will form a part of the gong bath experience.

We have a quick chat with Martyn about our needs and reasons for being there, before settling down on a bed and wrapping up with blankets. He explains to us that as the gong bath experience can be both physically and mentally intense, he’s going to give us a relatively gentle time.

What happens in the gong bath?

The session is an hour long and it’s important to feel comfortable. We’re  provided us with some egg-shaped shakers should we wish to indicate that the gong sounds have become too intense (we didn’t need them).

Once relaxed on the bed, the time seemed to speed by. Martyn opens the session with some ambient gong sounds before building up the intensity and varying the soundscape with other percussion instruments.

The vibrations from the gongs were instantly relaxing and I felt the sounds resonated throughout mind and body with a calming richness.

What does it feel like?

I felt my mind begin to turn over thoughts as it prepared to relax and let go, it was then that I started to locate the sources of tension in my body.

First comes a fluttering sensation in my side, before I develop an awareness of where the tightness across my shoulders originates – this makes me mindful that I need to take care of my posture each day.

As we opened our eyes at the end of the gong bath, it soon became clear that we had all had powerful but very different experiences.

One bather was so relaxed that she fell asleep (this is apparently quite common and does not prevent the gong bath from working). Another spoke of the vivid images she’d visualised.

We all felt that the gong bath had been deeply beneficial and wished to return, either alone or with partners.

Where can I take a gong bath?

Taking a gong bath aids meditation and is great for relaxation either individually, as a couple or a group.

Gong Goodies

Gong Spa – home of everything gong including dates of gong baths in Manchester and surrounding areas

Northern School of Soundsmiths – learn to craft sounds for your enjoyment and the benefit of others

Gong Spa Experiences – tracks to relax or meditate to – available to download

Being a part of BraCamp

This was the third year that I’ve volunteered to help run Manchester Girl Geeks BraCamp, but this year I was able to make more of a contribution and that felt really good.

bracamp-team
Manchester Girl Geeks #BraCamp team from left to right: Natalie-Claire Luwisha, Zoe E Breen (me) , Katie Steckles, Sam Headland, Emily Watkins, Gem Hill – Photograph courtesy of @mcrgirlgeeks

BraCamp, for those not in the know, is Manchester Girl Geeks twist on the BarCamp format. It’s an ‘unconference’ event where all attendees are invited to sign up for a slot to share their ideas and / or start a discussion. See the #BraCamp hashtag for tweets from the day.

So running the ticket confirmation process, meeting and greeting attendees on the day and a fair bit of tweeting from the Manchester Girl Geeks account (as well as my own) was a great way to connect with faces old and new.

IMG_2010_1024In between these activities I made it to a few of the talks – all of which were excellent. Topics ranged from women and digital music production, to what it takes to produce a podcast, and life after PhD study.

I also had a great chat with a teachers @upsideteach and @Mr_G_ICT and digital project manager @ColetteWeston about the challenges of teaching ICT and computing from Year 1 right through to Year 13.

Although I didn’t do a talk myself it was great fun to take part in the ‘slideshow karaoke’. In this challenge you are asked to give a convincing-sounding presentation to accompany a deck of slides that a) you’ve never seen before and b) are on a subject you know nothing about.

It took all my powers of improvisation to busk my way through a talk on combat vehicles in South Africa and try to convince the audience that badgers wearing body armour were capable of driving tanks.

This was topped by @jedw‘s efforts to speak authoritatively about golf – we were all fascinated to hear about the nine erogenous zones of a golf course!

Finally, as I’d managed to lose my raffle tickets, I offered to pick the tickets out for the fabulous prizes we’d lined up for the day. It was great to see the winners faces when they picked up their goodies.