• Mair Elliott

Art and mental health

Last week I attended a fantastic event on the theme of art and mental health. It was like a breath of fresh air. I had an incredibly cultured upbringing, but I was as victim of the rather bizarre notion that science and art were polar opposites; that if you did one you couldn’t do the other. I was destined to study maths and science, I was destined to go to university and get a degree in maths and science, I would become a scientist. My natural reaction to engaging with the arts is that I am going against expectations. Isn’t that a terrifying thing? Stepping off the straight and predictable track, into a world with no tracks whatsoever.

In the end my stepping off the tracks was an explosive, chaotic, painful eventuality. Propelled at full thrust into a world of doctors, nurses, medications, therapists, the mental health act, psychiatric units, being institutionalised, and so forth.

It was this deeply painful, traumatic wrench in my life that connected me to my creative side. The first time I met an art therapist was during my first inpatient admission in a psychiatric unit for adolescents. I wrote the following poem describing this experience and read it at the art and mental health event (I write my poems to be said out loud);


In medicated stupor I sit,

single mattress on the floor,

Wondering what did I commit?

To be behind a locked door.

The ‘de-escalation room’,

Plain, boring, empty, clinical,

the ‘difficult patient’ store-room

…that’s just me being ‘cynical’

To pass the dragging time

I imagine the colours I’d paint

Yellows, blues, purple, lime

With Pollock’s technique, I’ll acquaint.

Waiting to be questioned, accosted

Another ‘professional’ on their way

With all this ‘intervention’ I’m exhausted

I never know what I’m to say.

Paper, pencils, paint, pens,

Even clay, glitter and glue

The art therapist’s mouth never opens

What I was to do, I knew.

Finally, I could process,

Express my frightful mind,

Show people my distress

When the words I cannot find

To this day, I articulate

Through written word and verse

I paint my chaotic mental state,

In music I can immerse.

Consider early-man’s cave paintings,

they could have been catching food

Yet, they patiently sat creating

Therefore, there’s only one thing to conclude;

Art is fundamentally human

From beginning to end

To deny us art, you call us subhuman,

My right to create, I’ll defend.

You ask, what is art to mental health,

I ask, what is mental health without art?

To give you more background, the ward I was on had a ‘de-escalation room’, which was were you’d end up if you started to become distressed. Often a psychiatrist would come in to asses you after you had calmed down. For me this was never very helpful. I didn’t like the way the psychiatrists carried themselves; as if they were superior. As those who know me will agree, I’m not one for being told my place, especially from people with glorified egos, so it wouldn’t end well. (Side note: Not all psychiatrists are like this, and there has been a change in attitudes since then). On one occasion an art therapist met with me, and it changed everything. As my poem says, I could finally process my emotions and express myself before it reached a point of uncontrolled distress.

Last week’s event allowed me to review how art has played a part in my journey with mental illness. At the event I said the following;

“I have come to realise that it is immeasurably difficult to explain to people what it actually means to live with mental illness. To show people the reality of trying to stay alive when every cell in your body and brain wants to give up. To show people the strange and distressing places you go to when hallucinating and delusional. To express the frustration, confusion, chaos, failure, excitement, despair, joy, tears, smiles, humour, pain, anger, and more. Spilling it all onto a piece of paper is like catching a breath between desperate strokes. The creative process allows me to draw parallels, to draw from my chaos a sense of structure….

…It’s my need to write and paint about what has happened to me that keeps my feet on this ground. I read recently that creativity requires stepping off the tracks, to stop taking the easiest route – I can say I’ve done that, involuntarily maybe, but I’m a better person now because of it. I’m a better, healthier person when I can create, when I’m given the space to turn the mess in my head into something on a page.”

I have since been rummaging through my belongings to find some of the artwork I had created over the years. I found myself completely encapsulated looking back through this work. When I am ill, I do not form memories properly. This means I have a very patchy memory of the times I have been at my worst. However, the artwork I’ve dug out sheds a light on these episodes of my life. It also solidifies the idea for me that art has its place in healthcare, as I said at last week’s event;

“Although I can’t speak on behalf of anyone else, my experience has taught me that art, whether writing, painting, singing or other, has a profound effect on my mental health. The false dichotomy between science and art has leached into healthcare, creating a system heavily reliant on the medical model. I don’t dispute that it has its place, but not in the absence of natural human creativity. Anyone who’s been in a psychiatric unit will agree with me – the whole experience is just the most maddening, sometimes funny, sad, bizarre, sometimes harrowing situation you could ever imagine yourself in. Art, intentional or not, spills from the walls and ceilings like an unexpected burst pipe. Why not harness that for its healing power? Why not give people the space to spill their troubles onto a page? Why not facilitate recovery through the power of creativity? As I’ve already said, it seems art existed before civilisation, in fact many would argue that the development of creativity was the beginning of human civilisation. It’s in our fundamental nature to be artists. If we deny ourselves the fruition of a fundamental part of being, then how will we ever expect to feel well?“

I personally will continue to use creativity as a means for managing life with mental illness and autism. I write, draw, paint, and more because it helps me get through, to make sense of my experience, and to express my inner turmoil. I know I will not be the next Picasso or Emily Dickinson - that's not the point. I don't let my perfectionism get it's picky claws on my art. The creative process is a type of medicine or therapy for me, and one that I intend on embedding deep into my life.

I drew this with Anorexia in mind. At my worst I felt like a lifeless puppet beign controlled by Anorexia. However, the hand is a sketch of my own hand. make of that as you will.

My take on a 'head clutcher' picture. I don't feel I have a head/mind when ill, it's lost to the illlness, hence the faceless head clutcher.

I'm an outdoorsy person and spend a lot of time in nature. I painted this when in hospital, unable to access greenery.

The word 'dissociation' explains it all. The misplacement and strange dimensions describe what it can feel like when dissociating/depersonalising.

A cartoon-y picture of my dog, because why not? When in hosptial I miss my animals dearly, so I draw them a lot.

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