Kerry Shadbolt feared for her life as she approached the end of two years of drama therapy, provided by the NHS to help her manage her emotionally unstable personality disorder. Shadbolt, 47, had formed close friendships within her group and it was a place where she felt she could be herself. It was also sometimes the only thing she could leave her house for.
She says: “When you get therapy it’s always time limited. When you get to the end of the prescribed period, that’s it. Off you go. There’s no discussion or follow on. There’s no safety net and you get left to fend for yourself.”
It was a massive relief, then, when Gerald Maiello, the drama therapist she had been working with, put up a poster asking for interest in forming a theatre company that would mean the group could keep meeting and performing. And so May Contain Nuts was born.
The group meets every Tuesday at the Hertfordshire partnership NHS foundation trust in Watford, and improvises scenes that explore topics such as self-harm and suicide, inspired by members’ real-life experiences. It also puts on performances for audiences – including staff at the trust and university students studying psychology and drama therapy – to raise awareness of mental health problems and how they can affect people.
A cross-party inquiry co-chaired by former arts ministers Alan Howarth and Ed Vaizey last year concluded that the arts can keep people well, aid recovery from illness, help people live longer, have better lives and save money in health and social care services. Despite this, they are still not used enough in the NHS, according to Maiello, who works at the trust. “It’s wrong, because they can offer a lot,” he says.
Another benefit of the project is that it offers current and former mental health patients a lifeline when the help prescribed to them by the NHS stops. The consequences of leaving people with mental health problems to drift can be dire, as a report into mental health care by the parliamentary and health service ombudsman highlighted. The report cited one case where an individual who had bipolar disorder and a personality disorder took their life after being discharged from a community team.
Shadbolt says May Contain Nuts saved her life. “When I’m suicidal, just knowing that these guys are rooting for me is what gets me through,” she says. “These are the only people that understand and know where I’m coming from. I wouldn’t survive without them.”
Another member, Katie Allen-Smith, 34, who also lives with emotionally unstable personality disorder, says: “This group has been the difference between an ambulance being called for someone in time or not. I’ve been in touch with members of the group on Whatsapp or Messenger and they’ve contacted my husband and said ‘You need to go and get her’ when I couldn’t do anything.”
As well as the peer support on offer, the group ieducates people on living with mental health issues. It puts on performances and then holds a workshop to discuss what the audience has just seen. Healthcare students find this particularly helpful as they can ask candid and probing questions that they might be afraid to in a clinical setting.
Kevin Smith, 56, who has post traumatic stress disorder and depression, says: “When we’ve done a performance, sometimes we take a bow and the audience stands there clapping. You think, ‘Wow. I’ve made an impression. I’m getting the message out there.’”
Audiences have been moved to tears by the sometimes difficult drama on display, especially seeing a character crumple under the weight of mental health problems. Students have said they’ve learned more in a couple of hours with the group than in two years of their course.
It’s this performance aspect that Maiello is most proud of. “Every performance is an achievement,” he says. He has noticed that the key themes the group explores are rejection, loss, abandonment and grief – which are at odds with going up on stage. “If you’ve experienced a lot of rejection, why go on stage to receive more?”
He adds that the performances aim to highlight the need for healthcare professionals to see people above and beyond a diagnosis. “If it enables them to see more than just a mental health diagnosis, then we’ve won the day.”
May Contain Nuts won in the mental health category, sponsored by the Guardian, at the UK Advancing Healthcare Awards for allied health professionals and healthcare scientists leading innovative healthcare practice.
- In the UK the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.
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