'How can we all say come with me, and mean it?' Reflections on Strike A Light's Arts and Mental Health day

Recent graduate and participant on Create Gloucestershire's Creative Careers Programme Tasha O'Dowd attended Strike A Light's recent Arts and Mental Health Day. Here she blogs about the day, her experience and reflections. 

A moving, thoughtful and inspiring day at Strike A Light Festival - Arts and Mental Health Day.

The Strike A Light team brought a much needed and valuable discussion to the table as part of their festival of dance and theatre in Gloucester. This was a wonderful opportunity to bring practitioners in mental health and arts together, as part of a festival celebrating diversity in the arts and which ‘invites us all to strike a light for ourselves, our creativity, and our communities.’

This day definitely illuminated some of the issues, challenges, practical approaches and positive potential for arts and mental health. As a recent graduate working in the arts and interested in healthcare it was great to reconnect, listen, learn, reflect and be inspired by those in the room.

I had a concern for, and a heightened awareness of the challenges we face in providing better care and support to those with mental health needs. This day reiterated the relevance of mental health to all our lives. One in Three people in the UK suffer from a mental health condition at some point in their life. When you consider the carers too, this is a huge proportion of people directly affected.

We need to normalise mental health and not create an ‘ism or ‘other.’

Sadly there remains significant stigma and shame attached to mental health issues and this must be eroded. Talking openly about mental health is central to this process. We need to normalise mental health and not create an ‘ism or ‘other.’

As a young person, I feel acutely aware that unless mental health is given adequate and appropriate priority, there is mounting potential for it to have a devastating impact on our society in the future.

The day was framed around some key questions concerning arts and mental health:

  • How can artists with mental health issues work safely?
  • How can venues and producers support that process?
  • How can venues be more friendly and accessible to audiences with mental health needs?
  • What does accessibility and mental health really mean?
  • What work is made by artists with mental health issues? Is it good? Who wants to see it?

I was very touched to hear Viv Gordon speak of her personal experience as an artist with a mental health condition. She spoke of her vulnerability, shame and the fear of ‘coming out’ but also the impact this action had in terms of access to advice and support. Confronting silence, when one is conditioned to be silent and appear ‘normal’ is a huge challenge. Viv highlighted that mental health illness is the ‘largest disability in the UK.’ This makes us question the apparent lack of attention it receives.

In terms of how venues and producers can help support artists with mental health issues, Viv applauded the approach of GDance, where she was asked ‘What do you need to do your best work?’ This question and its significance in supporting one’s full potential should be seen as an example. Viv also talked about her experience in writing and performing her work “I am Joan” emphasising that this was possible only because of the supervision she received. She worked with producers who looked after everyone, was given space and time to build up trust and was able to talk through practicalities and ethical issues. This attitude of care and a principle of ‘producers looking after everyone’ should be central to working with mental health needs, and indeed is a principle one would hope is applied universally.

Art is a means of communication and expression, fundamental to our wellbeing.

Pippa Jones from Create Gloucestershire talked of the value of arts to mental health in their ability to give a voice. This became a theme of the afternoon. Art is a means of communication and expression, fundamental to our wellbeing. Pippa talked about the issues surrounding an ‘elite version of arts and culture’ and reminded us that a lot of art excludes people. Create Gloucestershire seeks to help make art as ‘something for everyday and for everyone.’

Jules Ford, Cultural Commissioning Project Manager spoke of how emotional health and confidence underpins a lot of physical illness. Mental and physical health come together. There should be a holistic attitude to health. It was wonderful to hear that pilot projects are now underway in Gloucestershire. Ali Coles, Art Psychotherapist at 2gether NHS Foundation Trust said that the project has enabled her to work in a museum, highlighting that buildings and space are so important, and that working with the arts in this way has enabled a ‘whole different dimension to the work’ she does. It will be really exciting to hear more about the work happening and results along the way.

Ruth Kapadia, Diversity Manager at Arts Council England shared the mission of achieving great art for everyone, stating that as well as the moral, legal and economic case for diversity in the arts, there is also the creative case. Ruth talked about funding for art practitioners working in the field of arts and mental health, and also emphasised that there is support available for making an application, recognising that this could be a huge help to artists with mental health needs.

Fiona Slater from Shape Arts and UnLimited talked about the work of these organisations to remove barriers for artists with mental health needs, and highlighted that it was a disability-led arts organisation, using a social model – working with artists who identify themselves as disabled. Fiona highlighted the ability of these projects to shed a light on common issues surrounding arts and mental health, both from the perspective of art practitioners and as an audience member. Some etiquette traditionally surrounding the arts can exclude audiences, again coming back to the difficulty of ‘elite art’ and the culture surrounding it. Fiona also touched on the lack of representation of disabled people in producing art.

‘how can we all say come with me, and mean it?’

The Roses Theatre explained how venues can be more inclusive and welcoming to all audiences. Jane Griffiths talked about the value of being a community builder based in an arts venue; a safe, neutral area without an agenda. She talked about how opening a door can be a barrier to anyone, but a particular challenge for someone with a mental health condition. She highlighted the importance of language and message - ‘It’s not about why don’t you go to – it’s about come with me’. The Roses Theatre have used this in a practical way to create an open and inclusive venue, inviting audiences and communities in. Jane also spoke of the value of bringing communities together based not on needs, but doing and sharing with the community as a whole. Within diverse communities you can be part of something without the need to focus on an illness. Jane challenged us, asking: ‘how can we all say come with me, and mean it?’

For Hannah it was the arts, combined with medication, family, friends and therapy that enabled her to make a full recovery

Hannah, a student at a local school then made a moving and powerful contribution as a young woman who had battled with mental illness throughout her life. She is now well, and like Viv identified herself as a ‘campaigner.’ She portrayed the immense value of arts in mental health, making the following points:

  • The ability of music to block out psychosis, familiar tracks being a calming influence. Something I’m sure we can all relate to.
  • The value of doing and creating with your hands - both being productive thus rewarding and a distraction from self-harm.
  • The ability of art to bring joy to oneself through bringing joy to others, a huge aid to recovery and self-value.
  • The incredible power of art to communicate. A tool to understand mental health conditions, to enable family and loved ones to better comprehend the experience.
  • And also the potential for art to document recovery and show progress.

For Hannah it was the arts, combined with medication, family, friends and therapy that enabled her to make a full recovery. It was humbling to hear Hannah’s experience and for someone so young to make such a valuable and personal contribution to this event. It was fantastic to see her state so confidently how well she now is; a huge inspiration.

We had time to reflect, relax and mingle over supper before the evening performance of “I Am Joan” - a one woman dance piece written and performed by Viv Gordon. A very clever, empowering and honest piece about the journey of recovery from trauma, the work portrays the complexity and vulnerability of mental illness with truth, humour and directness. Very beautiful and emotive, tragic, hopeful and hugely informative.

For me this day made me feel great sadness about the stigma, silence and façade common in mental health, but also the potential for progress and the benefit of events like this in initiating and continuing a conversation. I left with a positive focus on the value of support, understanding, and a commitment to inviting - ‘come with me.’ This is a question which can be used by individuals, organisations and venues, working towards inclusion and equality.

Viv Gordon suggested that a national network for artists with mental health illness could be immensely beneficial, and will hopefully open doors to collaboration in the future.

I was very grateful to be given the opportunity by Create Gloucestershire to attend this day, and very impressed with Strike A Light for providing such a safe and thoughtful space to discuss this important subject. Another reminder of what wonderful initiatives are happening in Gloucestershire.