The Power to Express: Art and Mental Health

Ruby Ashraf 23 January 2019

In the heyday of mental health funding and reportage there appears to be an overdue focus on the impact of this particular health pressure on services. There’s also a timely acknowledgement of the burden placed on young minds by the pressures for self harm through eating disorders. As someone who has myself suffered from relapse and mis-diagnoses the trouble with labels is that it curtails the sensibility we have to be creative, whether in terms of understanding complex Kosovan writers, or in the impulse we have to create meaningful paintings or visual art. Crafts and serious ‘arts’ play important roles in therapy and in self expression. Here, the reality of mental illness cuts the opportunity we have to form meaningful dialogue with physicians and others in the medical profession, as well as our families.

This role is often sidelined, as talking therapies with medical professionals focus on understanding personality and personal conflicts in the workplace, failures, and family dynamics. These are important elements of recovery. However, the arts are forging essential ways of self-help for sufferers of illness. From autism to anorexia nervosa, the act and experiences of using a paintbrush, of building images using strokes of colour, creates a way of underlining your real self, and its potential to heal, regardless of the boxing of a person in a mental health framework of recovery.

Credit: Pixabay

In the Cambridge scene, there is less pressure to define a person by the experience of depression or of course, a debilitating eating disorder, but it can be that people redefine you and the way that you are perceived to be, by their very deep knowledge of eating disorders, and the technical specifications learnt through medical textbooks defining patterns of clinical diagnosis. Yet, moving away from this academic setting, where the most complex and thoughtful views taken of mental stresses are often from historians and academics (tutors). The mental health framework stymies the individualised and empathetic treatment of a person’s full recovery away from force-feeding the sick anorexic or prescribing SSRIs and anti-psychosis medication.

As a person who has experienced the state’s intervention in the family dynamics and state of my own health, via formal sectioning, this effort to appear understanding of the complex mechanics of eating disorder logic and relapse do not appear convincing. The process of sectioning a mentally unwell person is not difficult, on the wrong day and at the wrong time (down with influenza let us ensure that you go into gaol for a month without any recourse to a trial or hospital support for physical illness), we may all fall short of the mental wellness framework to assess our relationship and attitudes to wider society. There are many pathways towards recovery, and longevity in this process is paramount, which is where the history of dynamic and modernist art and mental illness expression comes in. We are well aware of the pressures that faced groundbreaking and tortured artists, from Van Gogh to Sylvia Plath, to Virginia Woolf, and the longer histories of cultural repose and differentiation of depression and ‘fatigue.’

However, the rigidity of the modern framework for wellness and recovery is undermined by the recovery manuals and sanitorium models of early modern and twentieth century European experiments with psychoanalysis. Part of this was the artistic reflectivity on mental illness, in the era of Jung and Spellman, and the interaction between artistic productivity and the journey through psychosis and illness. My own experience threw up endless cultural reference points – whether it’s the exposure to state ordered mental recovery, or the state’s ignorance of a long history of treatment that accounted for artistic expressiveness, different personality models and the idea of recuperating from the stresses of modern life in country houses near lakes in the Nordic and French model of institutionalisation for the mental unfit.

Whether we are talking of the haunting story of Frederick of Bavaria, or the Jungian method and psychoanalysis Sabina Spielrein, the cultural interest in mental illness, has firstly been a creative journey by the writer into his or her own mind and memory. This can be daunting, when you are asked to pose to yourself the inner core of mental sickness, and expressively tell yourself why you are sick. This is where the sheer talent of tortured and uncertainty hangs over the level of treatment modernist artists received whether the untimely death of Van Gogh who spent much of his life recuperating in the Saint-Paul asylum in Saint-Remy, or of Munch, who wished never to have children lest they inherit his debilitating mental condition of psychosis (See this Spring the Munch exhibition in the British Museum).

For me, it was the lighter film, Girl Interrupted, starring Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie, that sums up the female only ward on which I was detained. Recalling scenes where the girls break in to find their own files, I made a dash for the exit in a secure site. I ended up on Christmas Eve, in the police station, exploring legal avenues to lift my section. Being returned to the hospital, with two police officers in tow, came as a surprise after breaking my curfew, but spending Christmas and New Year’s at the emptying hospital (as people made their way home on leave and were kindly discharged by the doctors) without a care plan and no way to leave, was a tad depressing. Yet, I was convinced that the best retribution to the out-of-touch doctors who had placed me in hospital was to get through the 28 days and to break for home, without my mental state dipping further. I also reassured myself that this may translate into credible material for future artwork – an oil painting maybe? I was strengthened as the medication wore away, and I was able to use my hands to sketch and colour in animals.

The intricate relationship between artistic realism, modernity, and the self exploration of mental illness, also brings a peculiarly feminine nervosa into the frame, sharply summed up in Elizabeth Gilman’s Yellowing Wallpaper, or in Dostoevsky’s harrowing journey across the landscape of St Petersburg in Crime and Punishment. This book sums up the historic shifts and changes in perceptions of nervosa and starvation and expressions of mental state. The protagonist starves himself repeatedly so he can question and doubt the great male theory of historical change and social rupture.

Sectioning, however, is a singularly European form of medication, and bringing the question back to the appropriateness of sectioning feminine sensibilities even more misunderstood in modern frameworks of medicine (as the interface between mental and physical illness is blurred by eating patterns and disorders that outwardly manifest inward anguish). What artistic examples, and journeys from Solhberg to Plath can show us, is that the arts are important to shedding light on the recovery journey, and the artistic depth to which we can explore illness, has created magical and eerie images of social and personal expulsion from norms of reality.