The stigma surrounding mental health is a growing concern as some sufferers continue to feel they have nowhere to turn. But arts-based services are challenging the myths with positivity and using art to help people give their issues a voice.
It is hard to imagine Becky, a student from Cardiff, as anything other than a driven, positive young person. But for a 21 year-old, Becky has already battled with depression for most of her teenage years.
Using art as a form of expression became a major part of Becky’s life, as she talks honestly about her struggles with self-harm and the importance of creativity in allowing her to express her emotions. “The only thing that really helped me to work through how I was feeling was my art – I’d throw paint and wax and ripped pieces of magazines at canvases and scrawl my emotions across them. It was cathartic, and sometimes it even replaced my need to hurt myself,” she acknowledges.
Stories similar to Becky’s are not uncommon. Beth, a 22-year-old Cardiff University graduate from Cornwall has spent her life battling with depressive tendencies. She was diagnosed with General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and has continued to experience regular panic attacks. Beth started blogging, as a way to work through her feelings, “Anxiety is exhausting. But I’ve found writing about it seems to help. I’ve always been a very, ‘let’s take this thing and laugh at it’, kind of person, and writing articles on my blog that both make the reader laugh but also create awareness about mental health are kind of my specialty.”
There is a well-researched link between creativity and mental illness, with art taking a vital role in the path towards recovery. The use of creative methods, such as art therapy, helps sufferers to articulate complex emotions. In South Wales there are a number of arts-based organisations that offer creative outlets to those struggling to come to terms with their demons.
FINDING A VOICE
Becky’s story is an example of how art allows people to channel emotions they are unable to express verbally. The messy divorce of Becky’s parents when she was just seven had a lasting impact on her life, starting her on a downward spiral. She spent her younger years struggling to find peace in an increasingly volatile family life. “I was just very much the black sheep of the family, and I was upset and angry at everything I sort of just constantly lashed out,” she admits. These feelings drove Becky to start self-harming and drinking heavily in an attempt to cope with her overwhelming emotions.
“The only thing that really helped me to work through how I was feeling was my art – I’d throw paint and wax and ripped pieces of magazines at canvases and scrawl my emotions across them. It was cathartic, and sometimes it even replaced my need to hurt myself.”
After leaving of home aged 18, Becky continued to grow increasingly depressed despite starting to build a new life by embarking on a degree at Cardiff University. A turning point for Becky was a moment of realisation walking home in the early hours after an awful night out. “Every self destructive behaviour you could think of I was doing it, I didn’t care about myself. I had no self respect, I was just doing things without thinking,” she says.
This moment of clarity started Becky on the slow process towards getting better, “I realised I’ve got to stop otherwise I am going to end up dead,” she admits.
During her recovery process and in times of darkness, art was a real lifeline for Becky. She used collages and painting as a way of getting things off her chest. “I started thinking about quotes and lyrics that made me think there was a light at the end of the tunnel. At points where I was about to cut myself or do something destructive I would physically stop myself and make myself do something creative instead,” she acknowledges. The creative outlet gave her a glimmer of hope and helped her to move forward.
ASSESSING THE SYSTEM
Mental health charities report that, in the last ten years, hospital admissions in the UK due to self-harm have risen by 68%. By 2020 this figure is predicted to have reached 100,000.
This statistic forms part of the growing concerns surrounding the treatment of mental health, as campaigners and medical professionals try to change the increasingly stigmatised perceptions. Mental health sufferers are often perceived as potentially dangerous, making it hard to find employment along with having serious implications on recovery.
The current provisions for mental health in Wales are based on a five-tier system incorporating primary care services that provide assessment and treatment of common mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and self-harm. The foundation of the tier system is based on self-help resources and mental health education, with the fifth tier involving highly specialist inpatient services.
In light of the Cerys Yemms murder, which brought mental health into the spotlight due to claims about her killer’s mistreated schizophrenia, the pressures placed upon current provisions in Wales have since intensified. “Mental health care in Wales faces major challenges and problems at present,” states Professor Robert Poole, Chair of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Wales.
“We have a long way to go to get the kind of services that service users, and most psychiatrists, would like to see. We could do a lot more for people with mental health problems, particularly with regard to community services and psychotherapies,” Professor Poole explains.
Poole and other officials have admitted that the way mental health is dealt with still needs work, although the current provisions may not be generally unsafe. “It’s all about getting alongside people, and helping them to find solutions to their problems; helping them to manage their illness,” Poole argues.
PROVIDING A CREATIVE LIFELINE
An example of a Cardiff based organisation that champions an arts-based approach is Making Minds who focus on promoting creative solutions to those battling depression and anxiety. “We are run solely by volunteers, who all have day jobs and other commitments and most with direct experience of mental ill health’, explains founder Mark Smith. The organisation provides a beneficial community resource and understands the need to offer treatment that is tailored to each individual’s needs. Making Minds organises regular poetry and music events, to encourage expression in a safe environment.
“A-one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t necessarily work, as we are all different,” Mark argues. Making Minds helps support recovery and management through running workshops with local creatives such as poet Mab Jones and artist Rhiannon Gray. These sessions assist people in expressing their emotions through storytelling, drawing and engaging with the arts.
“I was influenced to set up Making Minds, in part, due to my own experience of mental illness – I live with bipolar disorder – and by identifying ideas that could help deliver new-style projects, events and ways of sustaining such activities,” Mark explains.
HOPE ON THE HORIZON
The success of creativity in dealing with increasingly common conditions, such as depression, demonstrates that individually tailored treatments need to play a bigger role. It is clear that the complex feelings and issues associated with mental health need to be dealt with by offering sufferers an opportunity to choose a range of services that work for them. A concept Mark Smith acknowledges, “As with any other form of activity or intervention that someone with a mental health problem engages with, arts and creative approaches should not be viewed in isolation.”
The positivity associated with creative interventions works towards helping remove the stigma surrounding mental health. The hope that defines Becky’s recovery is a powerful reminder that everyone needs to find a way of coping that suits them, “It is possible to get better, you just have to believe it – believe that there are people out there who understand and care. You don’t have to fight it alone, and it will get better.”