I’ve written my first radio story. It’s about space and mental health and it’s aimed at upper primary school children.
A friend who listened said he thinks it’s a helpful way of talking about mental health for adults too.
I wanted to write about what it’s like for children and families when one family member disengages. Here’s a wee section from the middle of the story, Ben and his mum are stargazing but Dad has stayed at home:
She poured him a cup of hot chocolate and they sipped together. It tasted good.
“It feels like he doesn’t like me” said Ben.
“That must be so hard Ben. But it’s not true, we both really like you a lot – we love you Ben!
Ben sipped his hot chocolate. He didn’t look at Mum.
“When your Dad sips hot chocolate, it doesn’t taste good to him just now. So it’s not just you, he just doesn’t enjoy things like he used to, because of the way he’s feeling. It’s not because of anything you’ve done and we can’t fix it”
“I wish we could. That must be rubbish for him” said Ben “I love hot chocolate”
“But sometimes he does enjoy things though, like the other night when you laughed so much that milk came out of your nose?”
“Yeah, that was gross. Dad really laughed. I wish he was always like that!”
“Me too Ben…… Do you see the moon?”
Ben forgot they’d come here to look up.
“We can only see a bit of it, but is the rest still there?”
“Of course!” said Ben
“But how do you know it hasn’t gone, you can’t see it?”
Ben thought for a moment.
“Well because the crescent is enough of the moon to know there’s a moon. The rest is hidden in shadow but I know it’s there”
“Well it’s the same with Dad. He’s with us but we might just see bits of the old Dad, the one who laughs lots. But he’s still here. And in time – he’ll be back to his old self”
Listen to Black Holes and Hot Chocolate on the BBC Scotland Schools radio website here, play from 9 minutes 20s.
The commission was to write something for KS2 with a stargazing theme and a link to Australia. I set it on Blackford Hill in Edinburgh but it could be any hill near a town or city in Scotland.
Half way through writing the story, physicist Stephen Hawking gave a lecture to celebrate his 70th birthday. He talked about black holes and compared them to depression. I’d pitched black holes as a metaphor to the BBC before Stephen did his lecture (tiny bit annoyed he got there first!) but I loved his beautiful words:
Things can get out of a black hole both on the outside and possibly to another universe. So if you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up – there’s a way out.
Read more about his lecture on ‘Image’ here.
Here’s how I wrote about black holes in the story, They’re looking at the constellation signus the swan:
“Signus is where the first black hole was discovered. It’s called Signus X1. The X means black hole…
“And one because it’s the first one?” Said Ben
“Right. It’s kind of darker than the surrounding area – can you see?”
Ben could see a sort of dark shape but he wasn’t sure if he was just imagining it.
“It sucks everything in, even light.”
“Do you think that’s how it feels for Dad?” asked Ben.
They were quiet for a moment, staring at the stars.
“Maybe, sometimes” said Mum “I think sometimes he feels like he’s in a dark tunnel but he’s holding on. Like if you’re on a train – you don’t jump off when it’s dark, you wait until you come out of the other side.”
“Do things come out of the other side of the black hole?”
“Well, not exactly… they get squashed.”
“I prefer the idea of a tunnel” said Ben.
“But things can’t just disappear. No one knows what’s on the other side of a black hole. Energy can’t be destroyed, it just changes from one form to another. There’s always hope Ben.”
The BBC team tested the story in school at different stages and I worked hard to rewrite it while keeping the story to it’s 8 minute broadcast length. We knew this was a potentially difficult subject to engage children on, I was asked to give it a happier ending. We also knew that one in three men in Scotland suffer from mental health problems in their lifetime so this is something children in Scotland will have come across, even if they’ve not talked about it. That’s why it’s important people do talk about it.
So often it’s the stories of people with metal health problems we hear but there’s also the story of those around them. Their story is just as important.
The school curriculum in Scotland has relevant outcomes that all children are required to learn in school from nursery age upwards including:
- I am aware of and able to express my feelings and am developing the ability to talk about them.
- I know that we all experience a variety of thoughts and emotions that affect how we feel and behave and I am learning ways of managing them.
- I understand that there are people I can talk to and that there are a number of ways in which I can gain access to practical and emotional support to help me and others in a range of circumstances.
- I understand that my feelings and reactions can change depending upon what is happening within and around me. This helps me to understand my own behaviour and the way others behave.
- I understand the importance of mental wellbeing and that this can be fostered and strengthened through personal coping skills and positive relationships.
- I know that it is not always possible to enjoy good mental health and that if this happens there is support available.
I’m so grateful for a school system in Scotland that supports conversations like this one. I really hope you enjoy it. Please pass it on to any teachers you know who might be interested.
Listen to the whole program for a fab space story from author Gill Arbuthnott proceeding mine, it’s called ‘A Long Way From Home’. Black Holes and Hot Chocolate starts at 9.20. Both stories were first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 22nd March 2017. Listen to the whole episode here.
Thanks to Rob Pearson, Producer at BBC Scotland Learning; Angela Darcy and Terence Rae who read the story; to the school children who fed back on the first version, to my agent Lindsey Fraser and to everyone else involved. Finally – thanks to you for listening.