Art and mental health?

Art is increasingly playing a role in people’s recovery from mental health problems, serving for some as a way to make sense of their world, to express feelings or to communicate. Art plays a unique role in each individual’s journey, mine included. While I didn’t want this blog to become too personal in terms of my mental health, with recent news coverage of the Bethlem Gallery opening at the Bethlem Royal Hospital (sister hospital to mine, the Maudsley) I felt like reflecting a little on how art has (or hasn’t) helped me!

If at any point before the age of 15 you had mentioned art to me I would have brushed you off. If you had mentioned how art can be used to help people who struggle with their mental health I would have most likely laughed. Not because I was an ignorant 15 year old, but because art has always been a sore subject for me. I had, for years, resigned myself to the fact that I couldn’t draw to save my life. My confidence was also far too low to comfortably engage in drama lessons at school, which knocked any notion of theatre as good thing in any way right out of my mind. The only art form I would have embraced would be music! I got into my secondary school on a music scholarship playing the clarinet, and music has always served as a rock for me.

When I was 15 I went into hospital. On my CAMHS ward there was a lovely art psychotherapist who ran an art therapy group every Thursday with the help of the consultant. I spent the entirety of my first admission dismissing the group, instead using the time to have my weekly Thursday post-lunch siesta. I tried very hard to convince all those around me who mentioned it that art made me incredibly angry, which would be counter-productive as it was meant to be a therapeutic group. I was eventually discharged having done practically no art at all.
A month later I was re-admitted and this is when I really caught the art bug. Over time I began to go and soon it was a highlight of my week – I’d purposely re-arrange any other appointments/commitments in order to attend! Around the same time I disclosed some things that I had never previously spoken about, and art gave me a chance to process it almost. It became the tool I turned to the most in order to communicate with staff, both about how I was feeling and about things that had happened. It also gave me the ability to say things without really saying anything. I could put things down on paper that to me were monumental, but would put have meant anything to others from glancing at it. It served in giving me some control in terms of what I could tell others as all around me things weren’t in my control at all.

That summer the Young Vic came to us and did some amazing work. It was my first introduction to theatre and how it could be used beyond the west-end. Although being in hospital is not the best of places, with their involvement they transformed my summer and no doubt those of everyone else on the ward. That was the first time in my life where I’d actually thought “hang on a minute, theatre can be quite good?!” We had parties, massive banquets, tree houses built on-site, a Ferris Bueller evening in the gym (everything had been made into an American gym/school hall, with a screening of Ferris Buellers Day Off)… We were even given 2 blank white gazebos one day with a LOT of paint and let at the walls! It was totally engaging and just brilliant fun, and completely transported me away from the real world where I was sectioned and on 1:1 in a psychiatric hospital(!)

Since my discharge from hospital I was lucky enough to be able to go on work experience at the Young Vic which was great! The team are lovely and totally dedicated to their work. I’ve been involved in a couple of projects since and while I’m still not confident from an acting point of view, I now see how immersing theatre can be and completely understand how people would find that helpful.

We make our feelings known on the lack of funding for mental health services, but from what I can see the arts have it just as bad! I would completely advocate for art (in any form) to be used to aid people’s recovery and sadly I don’t see it enough. If anyone is struggling and has never considered art, I would recommend it. Figure out what you prefer, if any, and go for it. Art doesn’t have to be drawings National Gallery worthy, they can be scribbles, or music… Just about anything.

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