Every now and then, you come across inspiring people, or projects, that stop you in your tracks. I had just such an experience last year when I came across the award-winning Alright Mate?, an Exeter-based Community Interest Company (CIC) whose mission is to destigmatise male mental health, one art project at a time. Run by Cally Hayes and Hugh McCann, the project ticks almost every box in my opinion, with strong vision, social impact, creativity and compassion right at the core.
Cally, originally from the London suburbs, has a background in mental health work, having been a Mental Health Nurse since the 1980’s. Since moving to Devon with her husband when she was nineteen, she has done various work within mental health including within Drug and Alcohol Services, on an Acute Admissions Ward and working closely with the homeless community. For the last eight years, she has specialised in Perinatal Mental Health – the mental health of women (and their partners) during and after pregnancy.
Alongside this part-time work, around eight years ago, Cally started writing, particularly for theatrical performance. Her first couple of short pieces were performed by students at The Cygnet Theatre and in 2014, she joined forces with fellow writer Lucy Bell to form Documental Theatre, telling difficult stories about addiction and mental health but avoiding doing so in a sensationalised way.
GENUINE, MEANINGFUL STORIES
“Through a process of trial and error, I’ve worked out that writing pieces around the subject of mental health is best done when working with testimony and real life stories. It allows for genuine and meaningful content to cut through the noise of buzzwords and generalisations. It also allows us to show that extraordinary stories most often come from ordinary people.”
Hugh, on the other hand, was born and raised in Plymouth and grew up surrounded by the theatre. He studied at Exeter College and then attended an art school in London, before getting his first playwriting commission and moving for a short time to Bristol. He then moved back to London to study an MA in Theatre at Goldsmiths before finally moving back to Exeter and got to know some of the good folk down at Kaleider (an Exeter-based production studio who specialise in installation, live performance and digital).
“It was here that I realised that I didn’t have to limit myself to one form of art or creative expression. I found that there is a benefit to having multiple creative outlets and communities, as they start to inform and educate each other, rather than conflicting with each other as I had previously thought.”
It was around this time that Hugh and Cally met, connected by their common love for theatre and its ability to reach into the deep parts of people, as all good art does. Inspired by the Lions Barber Collective (an international group of barbers run by Tom Chapman who train barbers to spot the signs of men struggling with their mental health), Hugh and Cally agreed that they wanted to find a way of engaging more men with the subject of mental health.
After kicking around a few ideas, they settled on the idea of setting up an art installation in a barbershop. As a safe and male-friendly environment, they felt this would suit their male-centred mental health project and, so, with some funding from Exeter City Council, they set up the installation named Alright Mate? in The Roots Foundation barbershop, on New Bridge Street, Exeter.
“The aim was not to tell people what was right, wrong, good or bad about mental health, but rather to open up a conversation and let people listen in. We interviewed men from the Exeter area about their experiences and observations of mental health and then looped the recordings through sets of headphones, placed beneath stunning wet-plate portrait photographs of the men which had been taken by Stephen Raff.”
“However, the audio playing through the headphones wasn’t matched to the photo above, so it left the listener guessing which man was talking – an intentional choice to drive home the point to the listener that struggling with mental health can happen to anyone and can’t always be noticed visibly.”
The response was overwhelmingly positive and the project was significantly more popular than Hugh and Cally could have hoped for. As a result, in 2018, they ended up setting up Alright Mate? as a CIC and committing to running more projects, all with the same focus on destigmatising male mental health, using testimonial, real-life content.
FREEDOM TO TALK OPENLY
This spawned a project in collaboration with the Veteran’s Change Partnership, working with local veterans from the armed forces which lead to the publishing of a small book about mental health and life after the forces (written by the veterans in their language). After that, Alright Mate? went on to be shown in a number of spaces including PsychArt Conference in London and in the Wellcome Centre at the University of Exeter.
Hugh and Cally then moved on to organising a recent tour of a play called ‘Cracking’ which was written by Cally and performed at community and arts venues around Exeter. Centred around the difficult subject of postnatal illness, the play is written from a father’s perspective and each performance had the original Alright Mate? installation on site as well as a Q&A afterwards to allow people to talk about issues which the play may have raised for them.
“We were pleasantly surprised at how open people were to share their own personal journeys in such a public setting. It was as if the play had given them permission to talk more openly and with less shame or fear. It was such a rewarding and beautiful experience.”
With an already successful track record in creating spaces for people to consider and question mental health as a subject, Hugh and Cally are set up for an exciting and impactful 2020. Hugh explained,
“We have some really exciting projects on the horizon. As the industry with the highest rate of male suicide, we’re going to be working closely with Kier, a leading construction company, to set up a mental health-related installation on one of their construction sites. The aim is to open up conversations and start to disarm the often-used behaviour of using banter as an avoidance technique when it comes to men expressing their emotions or feelings in that sort of environment.”
“We’re also going to be continuing to tour ‘Cracking’ in Exeter, London, Plymouth, Bodmin and Bristol and will also be designing a new exhibition to install at these shows which will be similar to the original Alright Mate? installation but based more around the theme of fatherhood. In fact, we’re actively looking for participants for that project now.”
“We all face difficulties in life and, for me, having a few close and trusted friends is key to staying on top of my mental health. People that know me inside out and who understand if I’m having a tough time, without having to explain it in great detail. Being known and properly connected is key and not the fake connection that things like social media purport to offer. Also, for me, art is a huge part of de-stressing and expressing myself.”
Thankfully in recent years, there seems to have been a partial de-stigmatisation of mental health issues. That said, there is still some way to go and there are still many people who walk around every day carrying almost unbearable burdens on their shoulders without any idea of how to (or who to) talk to about the strain that this puts on them.
If you, or someone that you know, is currently struggling with your mental health, asking for help is the best and bravest thing that you can do. Sometimes, a question like, ‘Are you alright mate?” can make all the difference.
Stay well ladies and gents.
To find out more about Alright Mate?, or to get involved with their Fatherhood or Construction projects, visit www.alrightmateproject.com or email Hugh and Cally at email@example.com.