MENTAL health is a tricky one. Because sufferers rarely display telltale visual signs, as one would with a physical illness, the issue is considered much more difficult to understand and even harder to tackle.

But one Winchester girl is trying to do just that and is using creative arts as a means to help mentally-ill patients.

She’s not yet 20 and yet Olivia Dunlop has travelled the world with the student-led Act 4 Change which aims to research the stigma around mental health issues through theatre and film.

Following a string of successful trips to India and Cameroon, they’re now about to launch workshops in Winchester and Oxford working with the Centre for Community Dialogue and Change – a forum theatre company.

“At any one time one in six of us will suffer from a mental illness, and yet there is still incredible difficulty in talking about the subject without reticence,” she says.

“Only in the last few weeks has the BBC quoted a leading professor as saying local services are ‘in crisis’. Forum theatre has a long history of propelling social change and the potential of this project is not only to explore the incredible difficulties there are in India in accessing such services, but the increasing difficulties one may have here, especially for young people.”

The 19-year-old, who lives with her parents, brother and sister, at Shelley Close in Itchen Abbas, co-founded a student Shakespeare company called A Company of Fools and later trained as a member of the National Youth Theatre.

But she said it was while reading theatre studies at Peter Symonds College she realised how she wanted to utilise her newly-found artistic skill.

“The main aspect of the project that drew me in was the aim, and how relevant it was to personal experience,” she says.

“Watching people close to you struggling with an invisible, eroding, and isolating illness is an agonising experience for all involved, and there is no quick cure, no way to ‘shake it off’.

“The level of understanding is rising, especially amongst young people, but the scale is underestimated, and there are certain images of what someone who has a mental illness should look or act like.

“Additionally, there is not necessarily a cause, and I think this needs to be emphasised. Anyone, even if they live in a stable, happy and loving environment, can get a mental illness; it is not something to be ashamed of, and there is a tendency to not seek help through saying, ‘oh, but others have it worse than me’.

“These are preconceptions that need to be tackled.

“Moreover, I believe that theatre can be an incredible tool for change and discussion. Participating in drama gave me a confidence of expression I did not possess before, being a fairly introverted and insecure child, and has helped me through so many personal struggles.”

The project has become so popular the group are regularly communicating with health workers in Delhi, Goa and Varanasi and aim to create a professional documentary which will be broadcast in India.

It will involve forum theatre – in which members of the public are invited to take part in improvised plays – which will be put together to form the film as part of a longer-term programme currently being forged by health professionals in UK and India.

The ‘kickstarter’ programme was launched in a bid to raise £25,090 by August 13 which will include costs for workshops, transport, accommodation and production costs.

Olivia says: “I do not want to slip into cliché, but I would not be the person I am without theatre, and it is something I love sharing with others. For a girl unable to paint and verging on tone-deaf, it gave me a chance to be creative!

“A piece of theatre provides an escape, and more importantly for this project, a degree of separation, enabling a problem to be discussed more objectively, and in a non-judgemental, safe environment.

“To work with such passionate, creative people is a privilege and a pleasure, and I only hope we can raise enough funds so that the whole team may go out to India, and the full project can go ahead.”

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