“My parents called the police and had me sectioned. I thought: ‘I’m going to paint.'”
David is a participant in “Thou Art,” a project which explores the effects of community-based art therapies on the wellbeing of mental health patients. Led by Olivia Sagan of the University of the Arts London, the project is a collaboration with the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, Arts Council England, and the South London and Maudsley Charitable Trust. On Friday 10 June at London’s Tate Modern, the group screened a documentary of selected clips from the project, with one clear message: Art is therapeutic.
“Art’s given me a voice,” “Being creative is a way of staying connected to life,” and “I fixed myself by starting a self portrait” were just some of the patients’ comments featured in the documentary.
“I wanted to let the participants do the speaking,” said Jake Stratton, the director of the documentary and a previous mental health patient.
Helen Shearn, the arts development manager at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, helped intorduce patients to the project.
“There are so many mental health service users who are incredibly talented and skilled, but who need a bit of help or support to get engaged with the artistic world,” commented Helen. “A project like this really gives them a chance to use their talents and have as much say as everyone else.”
“Involvement is the key word,” she said. “Lots of current and previous service users came forward and took up different roles in the film project from starring as artists to operating the camera.”
Andrew composed the music for the film. “I have mental illness and I’m happiest about myself when I’m making music successfully. I think when you are creating art there is a flight from reality.”
Following the screening, a panel of art experts engaged in a rather impassioned discussion about the elusive concept of “outsider art.”
From what I could gather, “outsider art” is artwork produced by people who are not formally artistically trained. As a result, their art is rarely in galleries (as it would be “insider art” or just “art”) and is largely ignored and undervalued by the artistic establishment. Presumably the link to the film was that the art produced by mental health patients (perhaps as part of art therapy) is often rejected as “art” by the establishment. How ironic then that the “outsider artists” were being given a platform at the “insider” Tate Modern.
Once the panel had finished, the audience aired their views on “outsider art.” Paul, a patient sitting in the audience who’d also been featured in the documentary film summed up the general mood: “To be honest, I don’t have a clue what you are talking about,” he said. “It feels like I’ve walked in here and been given another label.”
The subject of labels was raised a number of times in the documentary and discussion. One contributor to the documentary didn’t give much weight to the labels she had been given: “They told me that I was dyslexic and schizophrenic. Being dyslexic interferes with learning. Being schizophrenic interferes with learning. But being me is good.”
Overwhelmingly, the patients in the documentary and involved in the discussion described how their art had become a tool with which to rebuild their mental health.
“Making art is much more proactive than counselling someone,” said an audience member. “Rather than talking about your negative feelings you can do something positive. That gets the positive chemicals going.”
“It’s all painful, but at least now it’s painful with a purpose,” said a documentary participant.
As mental health services brace the recession and the unclear reorganisation of the NHS, Helen Shearn was clearly relieved that she had a documentary which so emotively demonstrated the value of art therapy.
“There is always a lot of talk about producing evidence for the success of mental health projects,” said Helen. “The narrative and journey of service users is often difficult to record so we are lucky that we have a film which demonstrates so clearly how valuable service users find the arts programmes and the arts more generally.”
“Research shouldn’t always be about numbers,” she said. “The film really shows the journey of service users in their own voices and we’ve found people are really willing to listen to that.”
Guy Rughani is a BMJ Clegg scholar and a third year medical student at the University of Edinburgh.