Drawing on art for recovery


Despite the challenges around bringing art into the health services, the benefits are numerous, writes SYLVIA THOMPSON

OFTEN ARTS projects are seen as luxurious extras in healthcare settings but new research in University College Cork (UCC) has found that arts projects can reduce stigma and social isolation for individuals with mental health problems.

Beyond Diagnosis – the transformative potential of the arts on mental health recovery looked at three different arts projects in Cork in which people with mental health problems participated.

The Unfold visual arts and animation project met for weekly sessions of drawing, painting, collage work and Stop Motion animation at the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork city.

The Flow music project encouraged participants to use their voices, bodies and instruments to create new sounds and compositions which were recorded each week.

And, the Listen and Look music project involved artists, staff and mental health service users working together to create songs based on previously written Haiku poems.

“I attended the art and animation group every Monday in the Crawford Art Gallery,” says Marie Hickey who has been in and out of hospital with depression for over 10 years. “I’ve been much better for the past two years with no admission to hospital. I found the group was a great outlet away from the psychiatric services. There was a lot involved in working with animation for the project,” she explains.

“It meant a lot that it was held in a normal setting so there wasn’t the stigma of going back to the hospital where you might feel like you were going backwards,” adds Hickey.

Mary Dineen is a community mental health nurse in Cork city and the chairwoman of the Arts Minds projects mentioned above.

“When I became a community mental health nurse 10 years ago, I realised that the biggest problem for people was social isolation. Because of the nature of their condition many of them are alienated from their families. They tend not to get involved in community activities so they might not see anyone for days,” explains Dineen.

And so Dineen spoke to the other community mental health nurses in the Cork area which led to the development of the Arts Minds HSE staff-led initiative. To date, the group has worked across seven mental health settings in the Cork area and held over 100 projects in arts, community and mental health venues.

“Involvement in Arts Minds projects gives people a chance to get to know one another. They gel well. When you’re busy and absorbed in a meaningful activity, you can’t be thinking too much about yourself. And for those involved in performance like dance, it’s such a new experience which also gives them a chance to support each other. I can see friendships forming in the groups,” says Mary Dineen.

Using places like the Crawford Art Gallery, sports and community centres also helps to break down the stigma. It’s a nice surprise “to see people come in and use these spaces. It breaks down barriers,” adds Dineen.

In her research report on Arts Minds, Lydia Sapouna from the department of applied social studies at UCC writes that the arts within mental health can provide an environment where creative expression is encouraged and where service users can be acknowledged as people with creative potential, imagination and skills. “It provides an opportunity for people to be seen beyond the role of the patient,” says Sapouna.

The Beyond Diagnosis report found that participants were given an opportunity to connect with “real life” situations, an essential process in mental health recovery. Sapouna writes that “participants spoke about feeling good . . . having a sense of self worth . . . developing concentration and focusing skills, realising they have skills they never thought they had and feeling respected and heard by both artists and mental heath staff”.

She does, however, acknowledge the challenges to introducing arts programmes into the health services. These include resource constraints, staff shortages and a lack of appreciation of the arts in mental health by multidisciplinary teams.

Sapouna also makes the point that the arts should not become a part of mental health structures which are still primarily focused on the treatment of illness.

“The creativity and freedom of expression that the arts contribute to the human experience can be incompatible with the current biomedical focus of mental healthcare,” she writes.

Instead, she suggests, that a meaningful partnership between the arts sector and mental health services will require a fundamental change of culture in mental healthcare.

“Key ingredients of this cultural change include equalising power relations between service users and staff and seeing people in distress beyond their diagnosis.”

Ann O’Connor, arts adviser to the Arts Minds initiatives, says that this kind of work benefits the arts and artists as well.

“There is an exchange and vibrancy about working with people creatively like this. The arts can add value as part of a multi-faceted recovery approach to mental healthcare that the Vision for Change health policy promotes.”

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