Through the Looking Glass

by Elizabeth Winder

[Biodata and picture of Elizabeth Winder will be found by clicking here]


"How nice it would be if we could only get through into Looking-glass House! Let's pretend there's a way of getting through into it somehow. Let's pretend the glass has gone soft like gauze, so that we can get through. Why, it's turning into a sort of mist now, I declare!" [Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll]

And at the head of the stairs of Oxford Town Hall last April 26th a small girl with long blond hair and a blue dress could be seen stepping into a mirror, positioned at the entrance to the second Through the Looking Glass Fair. This event, and the first Fair eighteen months ago, were organised by Oxford Survivors, a group of Oxfordshire people who have used mental health services. Oxford Survivors work for the empowerment of users/survivors in relation to mental health services and the rest of society, partly though seeking to change the attitudes of professionals, public and users/survivors themselves. Both Fairs have been survivor initiatives, with professionals pulled in by survivors rather than leading the planning.

The Through the Looking Glass Fair developed from the dream of Alice Hicks of Oxford Survivors, of mental health service users and professionals getting together and having fun, meeting as people and breaking down the barriers which exist when professionals and survivors meet to work together. Instead of heavy business meetings about user involvement issues, Alice envisaged a life-enhancing event to celebrate the creativity and gifts of those affected by mental distress. She wanted these aspects of mental ill health to be visible to the general public, challenging discrimination and prejudice and correcting the usual distorted focus on helplessness and dangerousness.

The first Fair, held on a Saturday in Oxford city centre for World Mental Health Day 2001, and widely advertised by exquisite and eye-catching artwork, attracted over five hundred people, and was so successful that funding was obtained for the second event in April 2003. The theme of focusing on alternative strategies for coping with mental distress, as well as an exploration of different understandings of 'mental illness' was developed further; the strategies that everyone can use to promote their own mental health - art, music, drama, singing, writing, exercise, alternative and complementary therapies, were well represented in the free workshops, demonstrations, and performances.

Art on display in the Assembly Room

In the Assembly Room art displays made a colourful impact against the oak panelling, including strong images representing delusional experience during a psychotic episode. Art and craft workshops, children's activities, and the bouncy castle were busy throughout the day, also the eating area where a variety of English and Asian food was available. Inside Out Arts from South Wales held poetry and computer graphics workshops and gave away copies of their survivor poetry anthology 'Kaleidoscope' while in the main hall Oxfordshire Mental Health Matters displayed local survivor writing, both prose and poetry, some of which has been published in Nurturing Potential.

A succession of musicians and performers took to the stage in the main hall as other local voluntary organisations made information available about their work and the ways in which the local community can contribute to it. Volunteering opportunities ranged from enabling people with disabilities to enjoy canoeing on the Oxford rivers, to manning helplines in a variety of languages and providing advocacy. Two horticultural projects brought the outside in, Bridewell Organic Gardens with their superb photography and Restore by selling their plants. Wooden toys and garden furniture manufactured at local projects were on sale. EHA - emotional health anonymous - encouraged visitors to their stall to make an artistic representation of what they were feeling, and their collage of emotions grew throughout the day, while further down the hall alternative and complementary therapy taster sessions were on offer. Statutory organisations were also represented; a pharmacist from Oxfordshire Mental Healthcare Trust offered information on drug treatments and the University of Oxford psychology department was looking for research volunteers.

The workshops running throughout the day included African drumming, haiku poetry, singing, creative writing, the work of local projects such as the arts project Ithica, and a video made at The Mill day service. Other workshops focused on meditation and the spiritual aspects of mental health conditions, as well as more conventional strategies for managing depression and psychosis.

The result of all this activity was a vibrant, colourful, inclusive and fun event which succeeded in celebrating the cultural diversity of Oxfordshire as well as the diversity of local community groups, projects and services which contribute to promoting people’s mental health. It attracted over seven hundred visitors, and over a hundred mental health service users were paid for their work at the Fair - running workshops or stalls, performing music or poetry, catering, and other essential roles which kept the day running exceptionally smoothly.

The Fair had been carefully planned over several months. Once funding had been obtained through a bid put together by Oxford Survivors Secretary Richard Jones, Channa Perry was appointed to organise the event. The regular meetings of a small planning team were open to anyone and minutes were distributed to a long list of interested people. Preparations were thorough, including visits to Inside Out in Wales and SIMBA, the Black survivor/user/patients group at the Maudsley Hospital. A large group of performance poets from SIMBA traveled up from London on the day of the Fair, many of their poems posing the question 'Why Me?' Anyone experiencing mental distress is likely to ask themself this question; it has an added poignancy coming from members of ethnic minorities, groups which are shown nationally to experience institutionalised racism within the mental health services.

Funding was provided by the Social Care & Health Directorate, the Oxfordshire Mental Healthcare Trust, and Oxford City Council; other support was provided by many other local organisations and individuals, notably Yvonne Castellano of the Community Health Council's Having A Say project, Jenny Hatton, Occupational Therapist at the Trust, and Steve Spiers. As well as paying an event organiser, funds were allocated for payment of survivors making a substantial contribution to the day. Entry to the Fair, to workshops, and all activities was free.

Stalls in the main hall

As stallholders packed up at the end of a busy afternoon, dancing to the beat music of the Repulsive Roaddiggers, people still queued to receive an instant diagnosis, complete with stick-on label, from a team of dubious 'psychiatrists' aided by an 'Alice' with blond hair and blue dress, and a Mad Hatter. This was a day when 'mental health' meant a focus on health rather than illness, when 'user involvement' meant that people who use mental health services were involved in areas they chose and planned themselves, using their talents and creativity as they wished. The dedication and commitment released by this approach formed a sharp contrast to the lack of motivation which is often cited as a symptom of mental illness.

In congratulating Channa, the Chairman of the Oxfordshire Mental Healthcare Trust, Tony Purkis, who had attended several of the planning meetings, expressed a hope shared by everyone who attended the Fair - Surely we must have another one?

Ithica's exhibition of their MAPS project is presently on tour in the Thames Valley.



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 While training as an integrative psychotherapist, Elizabeth Winder  helped to set up a user-led mental health day service and provided counselling within prison as a Probation Service volunteer.  She now runs an independent  service providing advocacy to psychiatric in-patients.  Email: