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Arts and Mental Health

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According to the UK's Mental Health Foundation, one in four of us will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year. Mixed anxiety and depression is the most common mental disorder in Britain and about one in five older people are affected by it. In addition to this, about 10% of children have a mental health problem at any one time, the UK has one of the highest self-harm rates in Europe and only one in 10 prisoners has no mental health disorder. They are statistics that the organization quite rightly calls 'alarming'.

More alarming still is the UK's enduring struggle with mental illness. Despite government-led campaigns promoting awareness and understanding of mental health issues, many of us still feel uncomfortable making something that seems deeply personal, public. In light of the Mental Health Foundation's research into the prevalence of mental health problems, this seems even more shocking. "The mental health system is seen as a dark, and often unconsidered aspect of our society onto which the public project their fears onto the "dangerous and the uncontrollable" often fuelled by the media", says John Holt, founder of Aim (Artists in Mind). "This attitude only compounds the sense of alienation and disconnection of the patient".

Much of the airtime dedicated to mental health is devoted to new powerful anti-psychotic and anti-depressant treatments, but for a growing number of practitioners, the arts are a largely unexploited resource. Using creativity to enable patients to express, deal and discuss the challenges facing them is being heralded as an important step in their recovery, and one which its supporters claim is deserving of more funding.

Whether it is seen as a bridge back into daily life, an exercise in self-realisation, a means of exerting and regaining a sense of ownership, or just an outlay for expression, the arts have the potential to contribute positively to the UK's mental health crisis.

A former lecturer in Fine Art at the University of Leeds, Holt went on to found AiM as a way of publishing works by artists and initiating spaces for creativity and healing in projects with artists and service users. "At AiM we do not encourage the label "mental illness" and prefer to use the phrase "those who are in emotional and spiritual crisis" which in some ways alludes to a causation and an often temporary period of distress and anguish people experience in a variety of ways."

"I have always held the belief that art, an outcome of the creative process, should be about transformation", continues Holt. "By that I mean the often subtle capacity for personal change through creativity. I believe that the formation of language is inherent, but often repressed by childhood experiences. The function of the creative process is to identify, construct and interpret the maps of our life journeys, to utilise language and symbol as a means of orientation, as a mythological apparatus for the guidance of the individual and for the community. Language articulates experience and where language is absent there is a block in the processing of psychic experience."

The use of powerful drugs can inhibit the creative process, a complaint rarely taken seriously by psychiatrists, but one that Holt identifies as being of critical significance. "This factor so often causes distress and concern in the individual, a concern that does not seem to be of significance in the diagnostic and clinical process. Inherent in all this is a political dimension in which those with vested interests in the dominant model fear a loss of power and control from any alternative, more creative and holistic model of healing being offered--particularly one in which the integration process is self directed."

"Why is it that we delight in the delight of a small child dancing to music and yet, except in scraps, can deny the arts to those detained under the Mental Health Act?", adds Ailsa Holland of the Lankelly Chase Foundation, an organization founded on the belief that arts are a life changing force for good amongst those whom society neglects and give a voice to those whom society ignores. "We have been a nation landlocked by the medical model but practice of the arts allows us to swim free. A recent three year music project, carried out by the charity Sound It Out with teenagers in a forensic psychiatric unit, has been so successful that the unit is searching for funds to continue it. When our young people are so damaged by society that only music can bring them back, can we not learn lessons from that?"

Leading artist Lefty Caligari agrees. "The arts have always had a subversive edge. A greater understanding of mental health issues has led to an awareness that those with a different vision also have a right to a voice. If we starve the imagination chaos will ensue. We may as well be goldfish in a Petri dish. I'd rather see young people with mental health issues given a paintbrush than a sentence."