On June 10 I attended Working Well, an event hosted at the Free Word Centre as part of Word2015: Islington’s Word Festival. This year and next, the festival will focus on projects that use reading and writing to promote wellbeing. Being a firm believer in the therapeutic potential of creative writing, it was great to hear about the arts projects working locally to encourage mental health.
Working Well was aimed at both arts and health professionals and took place over three hours. The event was split into two sections: three presentations and a discussion.
The first presentation was given by Peter Leigh, General Manager of Key Changes. Key Changes provides music engagement and recovery services in hospitals and the community for young people and adults experiencing mental illnesses including psychosis, schizophrenia, bipolar and personality disorders.
A team of music industry professionals and musicians, Key Changes have found that hard to reach patients ‘don’t talk to doctors [but they] certainly talk into a mic’. This better informs doctors of their patients’ thoughts and emotions, helping to form their care plan and ultimately aiming to reduce symptoms, relapses and hospital re-admissions. Hip-hop is the most popular medium among patients and you can have a listen to their music on SoundCloud. Commenting on the mainstream music available, Peter says he finds the music created by the individuals Key Changes works with far more interesting due to the fact that they are ‘working with fantastic raw materials that are psychotic symptoms’.
As part of Word2015, Key Changes has been been on tour with young mental health service users, who have been touring the pieces they’ve created in workshops, of which a performance has been filmed by the BBC as part of a programme Stephen Fry is involved in, and will air in January 2016.
The second presentation was by Mark Butler from the Dementia Services Development Centre (DSDC) about the arts, dementia and creativity. As well as research that has contributed to the design of care homes for those with dementia, DSDC’s current project is the Dementia Festival of Ideas – a year-long celebration of the most stimulating thinking, writing and discussion on what dementia means in 2015. This festival also seeks to disrupt the media’s narrow and often inaccurate depiction of dementia.
Mark spoke, among other things, about the trends the media goes through in giving coverage to particular diseases, and how a surge in popularity often correlates with the funding available to arts projects aimed at specific illnesses.
Rose Vickridge from the Reading Agency gave the final presentation of the day. The Reading Agency works in partnership with libraries to deliver their two Reading Well schemes, Books on Prescription and Mood-boosting Books. These aim to make access to self-help books recommended by professionals easier. The scheme operates on both a referral and self-referral basis, is free of charge and available from local libraries. This is particularly helpful for those who have to wait for long periods of time to see a counsellor but are in need of more urgent advice; local libraries become safe spaces where the community can go for both health information and learning.
Tony McBride of Cardboard Citizens led the discussion element of the day. He worked on Speakeasy – a series of workshops for homeless or at risk young people, as part of Word2014. We first talked about the language and concepts surrounding mental health. When we talk about mental health, don’t we really mean mental ill health? What is mental health and ill health, what is normal? The discussion illuminated how the language we use shapes our perceptions and why it’s important that we use it in a way that allows us to speak openly and usefully about mental health and mental ill health.
This is where harnessing the therapeutic potential of the arts within a mental (ill) health context has powerful benefits – though not without challenges.
- Providing a safe space in which to express thoughts and feelings
- Aiding social rehabilitation; how to behave in a group, support and friendships
- Sense of purpose, control and empowerment through creating art
- Gaining the support of the institution and staff