I have wanted to work in Clinical Psychology for as long as I can remember. Being able to connect with people and offer emotional support on a daily basis is a challenging task, but incredibly fulfilling and rewarding.
Of course, it can be hard when stories of past trauma or current distress are brought to sessions by patients that mirror your own personal circumstances. It can serve as a reminder of the pain or disorder currently present in your own life.
No matter how much training you receive in “maintaining professional boundaries”, it is only natural to sometimes react emotionally to stories shared by a patient, whether in the moment or after a session.
Because of this, individuals working in mental health are regularly encouraged to adopt their own therapeutic routines which allow them to transition successfully from work to relaxation mode.
Last weekend, as I cycled home from a gallery in London, feeling mentally refreshed and rejuvenated, it became clear to me that my love of art was my own special therapeutic routine. Each time I pick up my camera or visit a gallery I am nurturing my mental health.
So, I’ve decided to explore the relationship between art and mental health for my latest blog. I will begin by discussing some of my favourite artists and how mental illness has affected their lives and shaped their craft. I will then present a short, informal interview I conducted with my artist friend Tom Laishley. Finally, I’ll finish by stating what research really says about why art is positive for mental health.
Art and Mental Health: A bidirectional relationship?
It cannot be denied that a long list of famously creative individuals have been affected by mental illness. Examples include Sylvia Plath, Edvard Munch, Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh. It is an idea that goes back centuries.
One of my favourite singer-songwriters, Nick Drake, lived with depression and personality disorder for many years. His struggle was documented a few years ago in a book compiled by his sister. The pages shed light on the last days of Drake’s life, and they depict in detail what his family describes as “the worst day of (their) lives” as they find him lifeless, having tragically overdosed on antidepressant medication. He was just 26.
Perhaps making art was a way of coping for these individuals during difficult and dark times, or conversely maybe their artistic creations were born at times when their symptoms of mental illness were less present or less intense. It is hard to know for sure.
Nick Drake’s depression sometimes caused him to lose interest in music altogether, but his psychological journey undeniably shaped his three exceptionally beautiful and melancholic albums. His fragility runs through them. It was not long before his death, that he recorded the song “Black Eyed Dog”. Heard now, it is an obvious metaphor for death.
“A Black Eyed dog he called at my door
A Black Eyed dog he called for more
A Black Eyed dog he knew my name…”
Anyone who has experienced either anxiety or depression will likely relate more to this idea of Drake losing interest in his craft altogether. When you think about it, the lack of confidence and motivation that frequently accompany anxiety and depression do not logically equate to creative productivity.
In fact, James Blake, another talented musician has written and interviewed extensively on this topic. He is outspoken about making sure that people do not glorify depression and anxiety as stimuli for creativity:
“There is this myth that you have to be anxious to be creative, that you have to be depressed to be a genius. I can truly say that anxiety has never helped me create. I’ve watched it destroy my friends’ creative process, too.”
We therefore have to be careful when discussing the idea of mental illness as a creative force, because this notion may cause individuals living with a mental illness to feel disappointed in themselves for not being able to create a masterpiece of their own.
Something which does appear to be much clearer cut, however, is the effectiveness of art as a therapeutic tool.
The benefits of art for mental health
Here is a quote from the artist, Eva Charkiewicz, whose photograph “Ghost Whisperer” is pictured above:
“I want to show you my world (my four walls) — my photographs. I became interested in photography after being diagnosed with clinical depression. Photography helped me and still helps me with my emotions.”
Like Eva, when I am photographing, I feel at peace. (And yes, that was an excuse for me to plug my own photography page, as all amateur artists do!)
When taking pictures, I am so focused on my environment. I am focused on all the wonderful and weird individuals and events happening around me that I am no longer thinking about the many deadlines I have at work, the fact I have to pack and move houses in a few days, or the fact I have massively overspent this month.
I was keen to understand more about specifically how art helps individuals living with mental illness to manage their condition. So, I called a friend, Tom Laishley, who is an artist living with bipolar disorder. I asked if I could interview him for the benefit of my research and he kindly obliged. Here is a snippet of our conversation…
Ellen: “Tom, what is your background with mental health personally?” Tom: “I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder around 10 or 11 years ago. I was diagnosed and then voluntarily admitted myself to hospital. They trialed me on lots of different mood stabilising medications. It was a difficult and confusing time.”
Ellen: “Do you think art played a part in helping you to manage your diagnosis?” Tom: “Yes, definitely. Art was an escape on the ward. During the daytime, there were lots of therapies available to us: music, art, even cooking therapy. Getting into art therapy facilitated my recovery. It provided an escape from all the chaos on the ward; from the other inpatients kicking off, and from the noises of nurses restraining patients who had become distressed. Art therapy was also a great place for socialising. They invited individuals from the women’s ward to join our classes. We would make a tea and have a chat. It gave me peace of mind. I also noticed that people who really engaged in the occupational therapy tended to recover more quickly.”
Ellen: “What is your opinion on the relationship between art and mental health?” Tom: “I think it’s about forgetting about the daily stresses and anxieties in everyday life. It helps you escape them. I think it’s also about a sense of achievement. I am proud of all of my pieces. I put them all up on my wall… it’s completely covered now. That being said, I think it’s part of a bigger puzzle. My friends that came to visit me during my time as an inpatient definitely played a huge part in my recovery. Art also played a big part.”
Ellen: “What is one piece of advice you have for someone struggling with their mental health? Tom: “Try new things. Experiment. Whether its painting, learning the guitar, even watching films. And try each therapy at least once. It gives you structure and routine. I think the discipline of going to art class every week gave me discipline in other areas of my life too. It’s really helped with my transition through discharge too. I often think of this quote from the movie ‘Trainspotting 2’: “You’re an addict! So be addicted, be addicted to something else”: I think it’s about finding an interest which isn’t bad for you but is nurturing instead. Art might not be for everyone, but it’s worth trying!”
Art can also help to promote and reduce stigma around mental health.
I remember an installation by Tracey Emin exhibited at the White Cube Gallery in London about a year ago.
She depicted her Insomnia through fifty “selfies” printed two meters high. The images (pictured below) showed the artists face as she lay in bed crippled with fatigue but unable to sleep. For me, viewing these, I really felt the torment and loneliness she was experiencing during these wakeful hours.
I was being educated about conditions I had no experience living with. I was feeling empathy through art.
Another example currently being shown at the Science Gallery in London Bridge is the ON EDGE exhibition. This free exhibition, which ends in January 2020, aims to open the conversation around the causes of and responses to anxiety through science, art and design.
Exhibited works draw on cutting-edge mental health research from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London where I work, and they examine anxiety from different perspectives and through lived experience.
Art as therapy: What does the science say?
As artists and people with life experience, we intuitively know that art therapy works. But a recent review of scientific studies looking at the effectiveness of art therapy as a specific intervention confirmed its effectiveness in improving a variety of symptoms for a variety of people of different ages.
But how exactly does it work?
A different group of researchers set out to identify the active ingredients of art therapy. They conducted in-depth interviews with adults with personality disorders to collect information on their responses to art therapy experiences. The following themes emerged:
Self-perception — individuals mentioned that artistic expression helped them focus on the present moment, identify emotional responses and experience connections between emotion and body awareness.
Personal integration — individuals mentioned that they could express their personal issues, emotional experiences and identity. They felt their identity and self-image could be strengthened and made more positive.
Emotion regulation — individuals mentioned that artistic expression allowed them to modulate their emotional responses, and increased self-confidence.
Insight and comprehension — individuals reported that art expression helped them to put their emotions and non-verbal experiences into words, when they did not feel they could not express themselves in another way.
So, to conclude, what do we know about the link between the creative arts, mental health and wellbeing?
There is increasing evidence that participation in arts has a positive impact on people’s lives, whether living with or without a psychological diagnosis.
It can improve mental health and wellbeing and bring people and communities together.
We are facing huge public health challenges in the UK, and mental illness accounts for more than 20 percent of these challenges. As the number of people living with mental ill health increases, innovative and effective treatments such as art therapy are needed more than ever.
So, don’t hesitate. Buy your first sketch pad. Visit a local gallery. Go out and photograph an area you usually visit, but don’t necessarily “take in”. Give yourself a break from your mobile phone and pick up a pencil or a paintbrush. You don’t have to be the next Turner Prize winner, you can simply just do it for yourself.
Over the years, I’ve learnt that my mental health is ever-evolving. I can’t just read a book one week, and hope that I stay cool, calm and collected for the next few months. I have to keep working on it.
I’ve incorporated art into a special therapeutic routine that works for me. What’s stopping you?
NOTE FROM THE EDITORS: We just want to say a massive thank you to Tom Laishley for agreeing to be interviewed for this blog and for sharing his thoughts and experiences with our readers.
header image source hunger tv
Five contemporary artists exploring mental health.