In recent years there has been an increasing amount of discussion of mental illness on public platforms, as more and more people, young people in particular, are speaking out about their experiences with mental illness, it’s become increasingly socially acceptable to reach out. However, despite this cultural shift, there is a great deal of ground left uncovered and a great deal of ableism still surrounds which specific disorders are taken seriously, and the ways in which we access support. Bea Webster’s short piece Squeezy Yogurt, highlights the unique difficulties faced by deaf people when seeking treatment, in a way which is both charming and heartbreaking. I was a little apprehensive approaching this piece because, although I know some basics, I would not consider myself fluent in BSL, so I do apologise if I have misinterpreted specific phrases. However, I find this video very thought provoking and emotive, and I think it will really help to open up discussion around the subject of mental health and accessibility for hearing and non-hearing audiences alike.
Webster’s perspective on mental illness as a deaf person made me consider the additional barriers to care which hearing people such as myself do not face. According to VeryWellMind, 54% of deaf people living with mental illnesses were unable to find services that were accessible to them, with communication problems and overall prejudice often contributing to feelings of depression. Take into context the COVID-19 pandemic and a new reliance on good internet connection for video-conference therapy, and another barrier is created for those who rely on BSL and lip reading to be understood.
Brookyln Melvin’s charming, emotive performance of Alexis, and Emily Ingram’s direction finds both humour and pathos in Alexis’ story. As someone with experience of mental illness, I can relate to Alexis’ shy smiles and goofy jokes, almost as if they’re trying to downplay their own symptoms because they’re so used to not being taken seriously. The wait before answering an online therapy video call is nerve racking, and Alexis’ need to nervously gulp down yogurt after yogurt feels familiar. As the piece progresses, they discuss instances of ableism in their day to day life, such as repeatedly missing trains because they don’t hear the announcement inside the station, or the added difficulties of being understood by hearing people after they’ve drunk alcohol. Mental illnesses such as anxiety can quickly cause things like being late to an event to spiral into a panic attack; often therapists will encourage anxiety sufferers to identify and manage triggers, but this is particularly difficult for Alexis when the inaccesibility of public services causes them to be late and those around them are not understanding. Communication problems cause frustration for Alexis, and leave them feeling condescended and stressed. Melvin portrays them as a likeable goofball who just wants to be understood in their own way, and it makes for a very engaging performance.
Squeezy Yogurt is certainly unique, and offers an insight into the lived experiences of deaf people with mental illnesses rarely seen on stage or screen. I hope to see more of Bea Webster’s work in the future, and this piece has certainly galvanised me to learn more about the experiences of mental illness for people with hearing loss.
Squeezy Yogurt is now streaming on the National Theatre of Scotland’s website.