Mental Health & the Arts: Overcoming a Double Stigma

Image credit - Casey Bisson via Flickr

It is a widely established fact that the arts can help with a variety of mental health problems… it is also the case that both mental health issues and arts as therapy are still heavily derided throughout our society. In this series for Searchlight Arts, we take a look at some of the people working on the front line of arts therapy, as well as those who have experienced it in action.

“I suffered from depression from when I was 13 to 21…” says 24-year old Anisa Haghdadi, CEO of arts social enterprise, Beatfreeks, which launched in January 2013.

Haghdadi comes across as very confident, outgoing and down to earth. She has also been remarkably successful and is precisely the sort of person who people would jab a finger at and say accusingly: “You’ve never been depressed!”

Mental health still carries a huge stigma, and this manifests itself in a number of ways: there’s the common assumption that many ailments, like depression, are made up by the patient, or else are at least the fault of the patient. Conversely, many people who need help refuse to accept they even have a problem; and from a treatment point of view, the instances of pills being handed out has skyrocketed… all of which makes the whole situation extremely difficult to deal with.

“Depression carries a social stigma and shame, making people feel ‘less worthy’ than others,” says Nirjay Mahindru, the Chief Executive of InterAct, a reading service aimed at helping hospitalised stroke victims. “Ironically this only heightens depression, perpetuating a vicious cycle. Society therefore needs to have a far more open mind to depression, and we all need to be better educated on this sensitive issue.”

This is where the arts can be beneficial across the full spectrum. They can show different perspectives to the wider public. They can give those who are ill something to focus on to aid recovery, without relying on drugs, and they can remind everyone just how widespread these issues really are. Therapy can also cover a wide range of art forms: from writing to painting; drama to dance.

Haghdadi set up her first business, a dance troupe, Strictly Street, when she was 15. “Part of that,” she tells us “was me feeling quite unable to get myself out of that [depressive] headspace. And I think dance really helped. I think it’s always been very much a steerer in the background.”

The connection between the arts and mental health has long been recognised and goes far beyond clichéd stories about tortured artists. In the 1940s and 50s Adrian Hill and Edward Adamson helped to pioneer art therapy as a practice; while The British Association of Art Therapists (BAAT) is the professional arm of this in the UK has been running for half a century. In fact, art therapy is now a fully recognised school of medicine as this NHS factsheet [PDF] testifies.

However, as Mahindru explains to us, as recently as the year 2000 “there was still an attitude that the arts were an addendum to the ‘proper stuff of medicine.’”

“There’s been a sea change of opinion since then,” he adds “especially around notions of ‘patient experience’ in hospitals.  The therapeutic benefits of all art forms have consistently been shown to help hospital patients over the years, particularly in areas of mental stimulation and alleviation of depression.”

Yet he does not believe this goes far enough: “There is a valid argument that can be postulated to say that investment in art therapy can save the NHS money in the long run by helping patients cope faster and better with their situation.”

The trouble is, it is not only mental illness that has received a poor reputation. The arts themselves have also been subject to a poor press. This means both the problem and one potential treatment are both automatically on the back foot.

“Even the word arts,” agrees Haghdadi. “If we say to young people that we’re an arts organisation, they’re like ‘Uuurrrgghhhh’ you think fine art, you think galleries. Even performing arts sounds very LAMDA and jazz hands. It’s really difficult to redefine, or put a new word to it so people go ‘Oh, I get that… I can be a part of that’.”

The truth is, to many, the arts professionals bring to mind scarily pretentious people wielding their knowledge while wearing ludicrous costumes, and arts therapy suggests wishy-washy do-gooders offering finger painting to whingeing adults. Yet this completely undermines the potential in the medium; real benefits can be found when we take people beyond all this silly stereotyping.

As Isabella Goldie, Head of the Mental Health Programmes in Scotland for Mental Health Foundation, puts it: “The arts can help to challenge stigma and discrimination through providing an opportunity for audiences to ‘walk in the shoes’ of others. [They] allow audiences to begin to feel what it might be like to experience mental health problems.”

While from the other side, “artistic rehabilitation can put the focus back on to the patient’s individual and creative personality, and act as a catalyst for self-expression, release and escape,” says Mahindru.

Mel O’Dea, an arts professional who has herself been through the system provided some context in a speech, “Psychiatric Survivor“, at Cork University in 2008: “Many of those who I have personally known in the psychiatric system, including for some years myself, have rejected any possibility of the normal functional life, not through a ‘will to be anarchists’ as such, but because we perceive normal life to have rejected us.”

As she explains to us the creative arts can be a way of forming a connection between ourselves and the outside world that explains things without having to formally explain them. This can give individuals much needed perspective on their lives.

Goldie says: “People with mental health problems have often told me that being in a group amongst other artists has helped them see themselves differently and has challenged self-stigma.”

“I always found talking about things like feelings and experiences difficult,” says O’Dea “but through art I can express myself without needing to justify myself, who I am, and what my experiences might be about.”

“Through history,” adds Goldie “the arts have been used as a tool to empower [people]. [And of course] for all of us creativity is beneficial to our wellbeing.”

The results can be quite incredible. “I remember a few years ago I gave one-to-one art lessons to a young adult with special needs,” says O’Dea. “The girl in question was 21 but had not left the house since she was 13. Through the lessons, I was able to impart a level of confidence that ultimately resulted in her being able to go to Dublin (a longish journey) on her own by train. Through discovering a ‘voice’ the girl was much less afraid.”

“Once, at the Whittington Hospital,” relays Mahindru “a reader was told not to bother reading to a patient as they had ‘locked in’ syndrome. Our reader decided to read to the patient anyway. A few months later the same reader was back on the ward to find the patient had moved out of ‘locked in’ syndrome and could now talk a little.  The patient thanked our reader for having read to her, saying she ‘could hear every word of the stories’ and was ‘so grateful that we had been there for her.’”

There is little dispute that the arts can help people with mental health and other ‘fuzzier’ issues. The real challenge is to get beyond the stigma of both the problem and the solution. Arts therapy doesn’t mean finger painting for attention seekers. It means providing non-drug-based treatment that works from the inside. And like most disciplines, what it really needs, is more financial backing.

“The overall relationship between the arts and health is one of fundamental contradiction,” says Mahindru. “On the one hand there’s now little dispute about the validity of the arts within the health sector but this is counterbalanced by the fact there’s still a reluctance by clinical commission groups to fund the creative arts as part of a package of rehab choices for people in hospital.”

“Viewing health improvement in purely clinical ways misses the vital opportunities that the arts have to play in health and rehabilitation.” he concludes.

First published on Searchlight Magazine Arts…

Speak Your Mind