As the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival gets into full swing, we spoke to Chris Young, the focus of short film Walk a Mile in My Shoes, which will be screened on Monday at the Glad Cafe in Glasgow
It’s already been quite a journey. This new film will centre on Chris and his incredible Walk a Mile project, which has been helping to raise awareness of mental health issues and tackle stigma.
The undertaking has involved walking alone round the edge of the UK over five years, and being entirely dependent on the kindness of strangers.
His inspiration stems from when he took part in a clinical study after being diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, and he was saddened to realise he had lost his faith in people.
Chris is frank: “The study was trying to get to the bottom of exactly what Borderline Personality Disorder was. As part of that, I was put in front of a computer screen where I was shown 100 random photographs of people’s faces, one after another. All I had to do was press one button if I felt I ‘trusted’ them, and another, if I didn’t feel I trusted them.
“Obviously there was no way I could properly trust or not trust these images, but I was guided to go with my gut feelings. Having been a social worker, I guess I would have assumed that, had I been asked about this study, my inclination would have been to trust EVERYONE! However, when presented with these faces, I was more than a little shocked to find I trusted none of the images.
“To be honest, I felt bad, so I pretended to trust the image of an older woman – in reality though, I didn’t trust her either. As I say, that was a shock.
“So, psychotherapy took me back to that time of hope and optimism – psychotherapy and the people around me helped me to remember who I was before these terrible times. That was part of the motivation – that re-realisation that people are fabulous. My partner Ella was hugely instrumental in that transition.”
Chris’s reasons for planning Walk a Mile don’t stop there. “The next motivation, again simple: I love walking, so it would be great to do more of that. My diagnosis is probably the most stigmatised of all mental health conditions…I felt I had to do something to challenge that stigma.
“The next: – well, you’ll have heard of the mental health organisation Penumbra? You might know a penumbra is the area around the edge of a shadow? Symbolic that people with mental health problems are on the edge, the periphery of society. So I thought I’d extend that a little…a walk around the edge of the UK to highlight the experience of people with a mental health problem.
“Finally, before I embarked on my ramble, a couple of my friends got me to read ‘No destination’ by Satish Kumar. In the 1960s, as a Jain Monk, he went on a peace march; under the instructions of his guru, he chose to take no money with him on his journey. His guru felt if he took money with him he wouldn’t have the motivation to talk to people at the end of each day, and that the only people he’d meet would be hoteliers.
“I felt if he could walk from India into Pakistan, expecting and receiving hospitality when the two countries were at war, then I could expect similar generosity walking around our lovely island.”
Over the past few years, Chris’s project hasn’t been without its challenges, especially the everyday realities of living with Borderline Personality Disorder.
“Sadly, my mental health has proven to be a bit more awry than I’d hoped. I lose roughly four months a year to dissociation. Which, to be frank, is a pain in the arse. Episodes tend to last between a few days and three weeks. We deal with it by putting me in a darkened room with loud American cop shows.
“Ella has come and mopped me up from all around the edge of Scotland at these times when I’m not entirely sure what’s real and what isn’t.”
But Chris now works with charity SeeMe and runs #letswalkamile events across Scotland that bring people together to talk about mental health issues and help to tackle stigma.
“I attended a number of courses run by SeeMe to engage with people with a lived experience. In seemingly no time at all we were working together to develop the #letswalkamile events as a distilled representation of the coastal walk.”
Sixteen of these walks have taken place over the past year, and two weeks ago Walk a Mile was awarded official status as a Scottish charitable organisation.
In his five years of walking the British coast, Chris has been amazed by the positive reaction he has received. For example: “I was walking alongside the Moray Firth, on the road to Crimond, a small village about eight miles away.
“A guy stopped his car next to me and told me he was going to give me a lift. I explained he wasn’t, telling him a bit of what Walk a Mile is all about. He told me he lived in Crimond, that it was a long way to walk, and that maybe he’d see me there.
“Three hours later I trundled into Crimond, met Kenny, the guy from the car, who was standing on the postage stamp of the village green. He met me with a smile and a ‘What do you do now?’
“I explained that if I’d had donations I might stay in a B&B, if I’d met someone in my way or if someone on social media wanted to offer me hospitality, I’d stay with them, but, since neither of these were available, I’d be putting my tent up somewhere for the night.
“Kenny told me his house was too small for me to stay over, but he could make me something for tea while I put my tent up in his garden. I quickly put my tent up and enjoyed a lovely evening with Kenny as I had fish fingers and chips for my tea.
“I reluctantly went off to bed – slept like a log – and was woken up with a knock on the tent…it was Kenny, he’d made me tea and toast before he went off to work. I reflected momentarily on his kindness before looking around and realising that I wasn’t actually in Kenny’s garden! I was actually in a communal drying area – and I was much closer to Kenny’s neighbour’s door than his.
“As I gently panicked, his neighbour, a woman in her mid 60s, opened her door. I babbled bravely…apologising…explaining that Kenny had let me camp there…all the time thinking what the normal reaction was for someone finding a bloke who looked like a bouncer in a skirt camped a few feet away from their door?
“She said, ‘Oh, I’m not interested in any of that. I’ve run you a bath…I just wanted to know if you wanted any bubbles in it?’ I think my mouth opened and closed silently (not unlike a goldfish) before I finally said: ‘Bubbles would be nice…’
“I had my bubbly bath and got talking to this lovely, generous woman. I asked her what on earth would make her run a bath for a complete stranger? She explained that when she’d been camping in the past, the thing she’d missed most was a bath. She thought I’d be no different. She wasn’t wrong. She really couldn’t imagine behaving in a different way.
“We got talking, and she told me she’d been the carer for a friend of hers who’d, sadly, died recently. She said she it had been sad, stressful and upsetting in equal measures…so she was going to stop caring.
“I reminded her that she’d just run a bath for a complete stranger…I don’t think she’d finished caring yet. This story sums up my experience of Walk a Mile. People have been fabulous.”
A huge part of Chris’s work is all about smashing stigma and encouraging people to talk openly and honestly about their experiences with mental health.
“With one in four people in Scotland experiencing a mental health problem, most people will have had direct experience of mental ill health.
“When I meet people on the road, I talk freely and openly about my mental ill health. My mental health problem features regularly in American cop shows, like CSI and Criminal Minds, as the guy who DID IT! I’ve found that open, friendly and frank conversation goes a long way in breaking down the prejudice and stigma generated by the media.
“These are difficult times we’re living in just now for people with mental health problems – I think it’s essential that we raise our voices together to get heard. I think professionals are experiencing huge stresses just now too. That’s why I believe the #letswalkamile campaign is essential for helping people to realise we really are all in this together – and that collectively, our voices will be heard.
“My hope…and this won’t happen overnight…it’s taken us some time to get to this point…is that there will come a time when we can talk as openly and easily about mental ill health as we do about physical health – that as a result of these open conversations, mental health services will be allocated the funding that reflects the need of the citizens of our lovely, wealthy, country.”
Last year, Chris was part of a short film Submerged which won a prize at the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival in 2015. Afterwards, the film’s producer, Johanna Wagner, approached Chris and asked if she could make a film about him. He agreed and you can see the result on Monday October 17 at the Glad Cafe in Glasgow.