• Mike Douglas

Dyslexia, Mental Health & Education


These are 3 things that I am very interested and passionate about. While I have not spoken much about my dyslexia, many of you will be familiar with my experience with mental health and my thoughts on education. I am particularly thankful to Hannah and #TalkMH for hosting discussions on education and mental health in the past. It has been great to talk with more people about our thoughts on these topics.

I was delighted to be contacted before the summer about a theatre performance that focused on mental health and dyslexia within education. Not only was I invited to the performance but I was also asked to be a panel member for the post performance discussion.

'You Will Fail Her' is an immersive theatre installation, challenging the effectiveness of the British education system. Here is a quote from the programme:

"You will enter a world of movie projection, giant balloons and the soundscape of your inner voice. You will revisit your own childhood and there among your memories, you will relive a trauma so unforgiving so unforgivable that even you will feel the guilt of a system that continues fail its children."

Fast-forward to yesterday and it was performance day. In all honestly I really didn't know what to expect, I have never been to the Minghella Studio at the New Theatre Royal before. So I wasn't aware of the size of rooms or exactly what would be happening.

*PS. Its beautiful in there!

I was attending the second day of a two day run (so the best one right?), I had looked online but not seen much from the first night to give me any clues.

On arrival I had to decide how much I wanted to participate. Hard when you don't know whats happening, but I wanted to get the full experience, so opted for full interaction. The other options were, watching only or watching and speaking.

During the performance I did get to read a few times, all very simple stuff. But as someone with dyslexia, I am always apprehensive about saying yes to reading. This is because I may not be able to read the words. Much of my language understanding is based on remembering words from having seen or heard them before. I don't think I can actually 'read' in the traditional sense. I don't know all the 'rules' our language has. I don't know how to construct words or phrase them. It is all from memory, or at least thats how I feel. Maybe thats part of why I find joy in writing and the occasional word play. I love my hangman words 'Sky' and 'Why' because of their lack of vowels. Just about the only thing I learnt was words have to have vowels, BUT some don't so 'Y' becomes a stand in vowel. Like all rules, even our language ones were seemingly made to be broken.

The performance touched on the classroom behaviour, reaction and feelings that can come with dyslexia. The negative reaction and concluding feelings children will likely have from this environment. Personally I don't remember being humiliated or taunted at school for my dyslexia related struggles. But I have ginger hair and loved being a Power Ranger at school, so there were probably other easier things for people to notice. I do however remember being told quite abruptly by a Teacher in Year 6 that my numbers were too sharp and that I had to do them again.

I regularly struggled with spelling, I would... I do, change words, whole sentences and more because I can't spell a word. I would often be told to use the dictionary, something that in itself became a unknown taught because of my inability to construct or understand words. I often didn't know more than the first letter or two, that leaves quite a lot of words to look through!

In the room (of the performance) there were large balls, which I have since been asked about by people that have seen my photos from the event. I don't believe they were explained, so I have come to my own conclusions on their use.

  • They block our view or path and so we have to adapt or change. Much like I do with my words.

  • Some people will come in and walk past them without much care. Not seeing the potential beauty in their simplicity or structure.

  • Some may push them without considering who is on the other side. Unaware or uncaring how there actions effect others.

  • They provide a chance to stop, to touch, to feel.

Maybe they were for none of these reasons. Honestly I don't care, the above is what I experienced, whether it was designed for that or not.

Through the performance Janina (the main performer) engaged with the audience leading us on a journey through the eyes of a young child experiencing the struggles of traditional education with dyslexia. Her performance was very touching and disappointingly relatable. The immersive performance was something completely new to me. Being touched, talked to, looked at and even being part of a performance was great.

That being said, I think the topics of this performance made me much more engaged than I would have been than if they had been something else.

Janina expressed the disjointed, worried, joy seeking life that seemed very familiar to me. Along with the difficulty that can come with not understanding some things everyone seems to get.

Amy played Hope, who supported the performance and audience interaction. The role of Hope was to support, often by way of hugs, Janina's character. I didn't take as much from Hope, I guess because Hope was really a form of self compassion. Something I really, really struggle with. After the performance, during the panel discussion, Amy spoke about her own challenges with mental health and how it has impacted on her work life. I almost cried right there! Amy's openness was something I often experience through my podcast, but not from people I am face to face with. Her experience was heartbreaking yet inspiring. I had to thank her after for sharing, quite remarkably I managed not to just hug her and cry. I was composed.

It was interesting to see how people reacted differently to the installation and the performers as they came in. As more people entered the room there was increasing sound and movement. It was impressive how 2 people, particularly Janina as the protagonist, were able to not just control, but lead us all through a journey in this immersive performance without having to say 'Oi you lot, calm down!'. Their presence and performance led the whole room, it was very cool to see.

The panel discussion after was interesting as we discussed the topics covered. Personally I feel dyslexia and testing was focused on much more than mental health. Which was a shame because mental health is something we all have the power to change now! All we need to do is talk about it. I truly believe that alone would help maybe half of all mental health struggles. Reducing the stigma is so important. It is essential!

Dyslexia, the worst name for a language difficulty(!), would also benefit from more open discussions about our learning styles and abilities. But there is more to work out and discuss. Such as how and why we test, along with when. As our education moves back to a more 'formal' testing system of annual exams, with less coursework or termly testing.

While some will excel, some will not. We should be mindful of what and why we are testing. Are we adequately preparing our young people for their lives?

Are we providing them with: an understanding of different cultures? Ability to interact with people? The confidence to ask why a task is carried out, or to clarify something they do not understand? An ability to work professionally? Self management skills? The ability to manage relationships (personally and professionally)? The ability to manage their emotions, and ways to express them?

Too often I feel skills and abilities like these are overlooked and / or ignored in favour of getting individuals to pass a test. I'm not sure young people understand why they are being taught something other than to pass a test, or to get them to the next course. I know I wasn't most of the time.

I love that Janina, Amy, DYSPLA, Lennie and Kazimir, Jon, Charles, Ariana and Laura have invested their time, efforts, passions, skills and heart into this project. The Friday performance (and I'm sure Thursday too) was filled with people from different generations. We all came together because of our passion for an inequality that still exists.

I am however grateful for my education. I know many are not as lucky, and will have experienced hardships much, much worse than mine. I think it is important to keep perspective. We have a great education system in Britain. One that is envied by many countries. We have much to improve, but we should remember how lucky we are too.

Heres to hopefully more conversations about mental health, learning difficulties and all things that in some way make us different. The more we talk, the more we remove stigma, the more people we support and empower.

If you are affected by mental health and / or learning difficulties please please talk to someone. There will be someone in school, college, university, your family, friends or workplace that you can reach out to. If you're not sure about talking in person theres loads of support online too. Including Childline, Mind, Samaritans, British Dyslexia Association and Dyslexia Action.

'You Will Fail Her' is still in development and I would love to see the evolution of this performance as it reaches more people. The 'Will' is so... provocative and scary, yet often too true.

Thank you to everyone involved in 'You Will Fail Her' for inviting me and for producing a show focusing on dyslexia, mental health and education.

If you are interest in getting in touch with Lennie from Director of 'You Will Fail Her' to support or discuss the project you can contact her via DYSPLAPR@gmail.com.

#MentalHealth #Dyslexia #Education #Stigma #BritishEducation #Portsmouth

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