Early in November a meeting was held at the Royal Society of Medicine, in London, entitled ‘The art of psychiatry: How patients use creative media in their recovery and how the media treat the issue of mental disorder’. Art therapists from varied disciplines and from a number of different environments were represented, including both psychiatric and forensic psychiatric (i.e. criminal offenders) units.
The Bethlem Gallery, which was set up in 1997 in response to an overwhelming demand for exhibition space for art made by current and former patients, is now an internationally renowned gallery. Set in the grounds of the Bethlem Royal Hospital – the oldest psychiatric hospital in the world – it has a 3-4 year waiting list for exhibitors. The Gallery works closely with the Bethlem Archives and Museum which houses a large collection of Louis Wain paintings, created before he eventually moved to Napsbury, and in addition runs educational programmes available to schools.
The Geese Theatre Company work mainly in forensic situations, dealing with the psychological aspects of criminal behaviour and imprisonment, often in very severe psychiatric cases. Based in Birmingham for the past 25 years, they will typically produce a play within a prison, involving either inmates or staff, or a combination of both. The use of acting techniques and masks could well be described academically as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, or role-playing, and has proved amazingly successful in addressing various problems.
Singing, as most people know quite naturally, also has its benefits, and this was amply demonstrated by the Mustard Seed Singers – a group of service users based in Kent, who have joined together for the pure pleasure of singing in a choir.
Extraordinarily raw, emotional poetry was performed by 3 former substance abusers from the group, Vita Nova. Based in Bournemouth and funded by the Arvon Foundation, their creative workshops are led, with minimal interference, by a playwright, and from the panel discussion following the readings, it was very apparent that the workshops had been immensely helpful to each of them, ultimately leading to Clean, a printed collection of their writing.
A five part drama, currently being piloted by the BBC with a view to being aired next year, was also discussed. The project – provisionally titled Not My Son – has been developed with very close collaboration between the writer and a forensic psychiatrist, with the writer conducting most of his research within the Bethlem Royal Hospital. It is intended that the actors will also visit the hospital, and conversely some of the patients will visit the BBC studios. Hopefully this will redress some of the concerns of the representative from MIND, who spoke on the portrayal of mental illness in the media, with statistics from the Glasgow Media Group showing this still to be overwhelmingly negative. However, interestingly, such was the public outcry at the Sun’s reporting of Frank Bruno’s depression a few years ago that, within the same day, the paper’s banner headlines were altered completely.
Art therapy has moved on immeasurably in recent decades from what many people may still perceive as a ‘sticking plaster’ approach, or purely a means of keeping patients quiet for an hour or two. With animation festivals, and recent mainstream reporting of art being used with combat stress patients, there has probably never been a more pertinent time for appreciating the extraordinarily powerful effect of art therapy.
As Lee, one of the artists from the Bethlem Gallery, says – ‘Pills are OK, counselling is OK and it will get you back on the streets, but what keeps your mind alive is what you learn here. That’s what it’s about – keeping your spirit alive.’