For the first time since 2020, the annual Rabbie Burns Ball entertained guests young and old to raise money and awareness for mental health. Dressed in their finest glad rags and diamonds, the attendees let their hair down in a blissful moment of catharsis after a pandemic that had taken a toll on so many.
Last year, the ball itself was a casualty of Covid. After its first two incarnations were a roaring success, it wasn’t safe for people to come together and talk about the issue of mental health, an irony not lost on its organiser.
Finlay Munro, a young Edinburgh based accountant, is the founder of the event and was inspired to do something to help those suffering poor mental health back in 2018 when locked in his room studying for his accountancy exams.
He says: “My whole process was ‘get up, study, work, gym, study, sleep’. It was very overwhelming and very, intense.
“I was trying to explore ways to make myself feel better and add a little bit more motivation because I felt like it was getting on top of me and I just started spiralling.”
When looking for examples of other attempts to raise money he found that a lot of people were attempting solo endurance challenges that were focussed on one individual. Finlay wanted to take a different approach.
He adds: “The whole concept of mental health and raising awareness is that we need people to speak to each other. It’s all well and good having endurance challenges that build mental resilience but that only involves one person so how do we get more people included?
“And then it dawned on me, people love getting dressed up and going to a big party!”
During the current pandemic, there is nothing quite so controversial as a party and this year’s event was no exception. With the new restrictions that came into place over the festive period, which were lifted just two days after the event, Finlay found no end of obstacles to overcome.
He says: “We always had that in the back of our minds, ‘will there be another curve ball from Covid that will stop us?’
“And then all of a sudden, in the middle of December, we heard of this new variant and I remember thinking ‘This is going to be a problem.’
“All of a sudden ticket and table sales stopped and then they started going backwards. People started pulling out. It might force a cancellation of the event, it might get to the point where we don’t have enough people for it to be economically viable. I was banging my head off the wall.
“A couple of times I thought ‘Is there any point?’. Within 30 seconds of people walking through the door on Saturday, it was all worth it.”
Every year, the Rabbie Burns Ball has a speech delivered by someone who shares their journey with mental health. This is the moment that the real purpose of the ball becomes clear. Everyone stops what they are doing and listens to the speaker share their struggle. This year’s speech was delivered by Jessica Robson, founder of a running and walking group that allows for people to talk about their mental health in a group setting.
Jessica started her group after suffering serious mental health issues that began in her teens. After leaving London behind to spend time with her family in Sussex, she found comfort in running with her mother and being able to confide in her on those trips. After returning to London, she found it difficult to open up in running groups that were “good vibes only”. This prompted her to create RUN TALK RUN.
Speaking of her experience of sharing her personal journey, she says: “With a history of social anxiety, to stand up in a room full of people people still feels incredibly scary.
“You probably heard my voice shaking at the start but I do find my feet with it and I do warm up to it. I am so passionate about sharing my story and sharing the RUN TALK RUN journey. It’s worth the fear, it’s worth the vulnerability and I think the positives far outweigh those nerves.”
While the ball succesfully raised over £4,700 for the suicide prevention service run by the Scottish Association of Mental Health (SAMH), the ball is designed to help people feel more comfortable to talk about their own struggles.
Jessica says: “I think we’ve come a really long way in developing our awareness with mental health. It goes without saying that we’re all speaking about it a lot more than we ever have but there is still a stigma and we see that stigma when we look at the suicide statistics, they speak for themselves.”
Jessica’s own journey has shaped her view of what is required for progress on combating negative attitudes. As far as she’s concerned, it’s an everyday battle.
She says: “I think we still have a long way to go in building on the awareness that we already have. By making it more normal in our everyday lives to talk about it, not just on one off events but day-to-day as well, is so incredibly important. And yeah, hopefully there are more stories that are shared. People might realise that they are not alone in what they might be experiencing.”