I have just returned from a 4 day job in Broken Hill, a remote mining town which can’t decide whether it is in South Australia or New South Wales. Geographically, it’s in Western NSW, yet still uses the South Australian time zone and phone number system. I was part of a team hosting a ‘digital storytelling’ workshop. This involves film-making in a social work context – participants are coached through the scripting, shooting and editing process in order to bring their own personal stories to the screen. This particular project focused on the lives of carers – mostly family members of people suffering from mental health conditions. These people have tough lives, even more so due to their remote location. Coming to terms with the realities of life surrounding illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression is a huge task, and the carers are often struggling through it without much support.
It was a wonderful experience to work closely with these strong, dignified people. Hearing their stories and then working together to bring them to life on screen felt somehow more important than an average film or TV job – it’s not an exaggeration to say it was part of a therapeutic process for them. I cut one story with Freda, an elderly lady from the UK who had arrived in Australia as a young backpacker and never left. She has a son with chronic schizophrenia, and was incredibly open and honest about her life experiences. My second story was with Isobel, a much-respected Aboriginal Elder (Barkindji), who had a son and daughter who both suffered from bipolar. Despite it being a sometimes difficult and emotional process, Isobel was also very honest and determined to put together a story which could potentially help other families in similar situations.
All seven participants showed the same qualities as Freda and Isobel. Particularly impressive was a young 14 year old girl called Rachel, who has a family story beset with depression, suicide and bullying. She handled her story with a frankness and good humour which inspired everyone on the job. It was a genuine privilege to be around such people, even for a short space of time.
Several things will stay with me from the trip, but overall it’s the sense that there is still much to be done regarding public understanding of mental health issues. Another participant called Margot stood up and read a line from a man’s suicide note he left before jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The words resonated with me deeply. He wrote,
‘If one person smiles at me on the way to the bridge, I will not jump’
The doctors and psychs are battling to find lasting solutions to these problems. For the rest of us, I think it’s important to do what we can to support the people who suffer from mental health issues, as well as the people who look after them. These conditions can affect absolutely anyone – we must learn more about them, and learn to talk openly to each other without fear or shame. Our little project was just a drop in the ocean, but hopefully it has helped in some small way. I didn’t have time to see much of the Broken Hill tourist attractions or surrounding areas, but what I saw of it’s people inspired and impressed me.
There are some rights issues with the videos, but I hope to have something up here soon to share with you all. Thanks for reading.