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When poor mental health creates great art …

Posted on 12 December 2009 | 3:12pm

Since writing All In The Mind, making Cracking Up, and becoming Mind Champion of the Year, I’ve been approached by all manner of mental health organisations and today want to give a plug to one of them.

Breakthrough do some fantastic work promoting the creative work of people with mental health problems. They produce magazines and coffee table books made up entirely of art and photography done by mental health service users.

It is run by husband and wife team Tony and Angie Russell from their home in Barnsley. Tony is bipolar and uses photography as a coping strategy. They have built up a network of artists whose work can be seen and bought on their website.  Inevitably, it is of varied quality, but there is some good stuff on there.

I was in the Royal Free Hospital for an ENT appointment yesterday and was struck by how much artwork you see around the place (alongside some terrific public health messaging, notably on the stairwells we were all being encouraged to use in preference to the lifts). It would be great if art done by mental health service users could get favoured stratus in the NHS artwork procurement policy.

It is an interesting area this. A while back I did the official opening of a new medium secure psychiatric hospital in Lancashire, where art therapy was a key part of the ethos, and was showing great results alongside some interesting art.

Mind are currently working with the talented British artist Stuart Semple, who is auctioning 10 of his early works on eBay, with 100% of the sale price being donated to the charity. Go onto his website to see the paintings and the bids they have so far attracted.

When Stuart was 18, he almost died from a food allergy.  He was rushed to hospital experiencing anaphylactic shock and his heart stopped. The cause of the reaction was unknown and this traumatic experience, and resulting anxiety, caused Stuart to develop OCD tendencies towards food and a severe food phobia, to the point that he felt himself unable to swallow. To try and resolve his issues he began to channel his energy into painting, using it as an outlet for his emotions.  It is these early works that began to gain him critical acclaim. So now, through the auction, he is investing the money he has made back into the system to help others.

Nice story. There are plenty of others in the magazines and coffee table books made by Tony and Angie Russell, and I hope they start to get the support and recognition they deserve.

  • @jlocke13

    when mental illness is seen in the same way as physical illness then perhaps the proper resources and investment will be made by governments…until then mental illness will be the Cinderella of medicine.. i applaud your efforts Alastair for putting your undoubted communication skills to work in this area…As to art and creativity, over 40 years ago, as a volunteer, i was giving photography lessons to Broadmoor inmates, it was astonishing what some of these people produced…

    (You see we get on so much better when you leave your political baggage at home…!)

  • Graham Waterman

    There is definitely a close link between creativity and people who maybe live a little near the edge for their own good (or, I am aware, their own choices.) I agree that there should be lots of this kind of thing in our public spaces

  • Jefff Craney

    Stuart Semple’s work is superb and the prices on there now very reasonable. All part of the Nancyboy series

  • Patsy Johns

    This is the kind of thing that will fall to the back of the queue as public spending gets tighter and tighter but it is the kind of thing that delivers big results for small investment

  • Quietzapple

    While I greatly admire the works of Mervyn Peake, to take the example which springs to my mind, I fear that some work by the disturbed is not of much value to anyone looking at or reading it.

    Depression is not an automatic entree to creativity, but all sorts of work, including the arts, can help those who are afflicted.

    Some of the most remarkable work I have seen was by a disabled painter who died at the age of 4. He loved to paint.

  • Mil

    I helped make a film some years ago about my own experience of mental health in the first Mad for Arts series made by the Community Channel. Unfortunately, I’ve lost my copy of the film and they seem to have done so also – but it was a creative experience which taught me a lot about myself and what I had been through. I think it allowed me to realise that the trigger for my illness – the Iraq War – was part of a wider set of circumstances and conditions.

    My obsession with what others had supposedly done to me had clouded my ability to perceive a more complex reality.

    Perhaps it is fair to say that mental ill health does not automatically confer wisdom or make someone interesting – but all of us, whether mentally ill or well, are surely interesting people in some way or another. The challenge is to identify what each of us can usefully share. With the help of sympathetic communication professionals, all of us can have some story worth telling.

    I too admire your work Alastair in the field of mental ill health. Bearing witness to experiences some feel ashamed of and others believe should be kept beyond their ken is most honourable. I recognised myself in “Cracking Up” and wished I had been eloquent enough to tell my story as effectively as you have been able to tell yours.

    Keep up the good work.

  • Robert Jackson

    Hate to bring us back to politics…I am very grateful that I had my breakdown under a Labour government and a properly resourced NHS which is willing to continue my prescription for a medication that works very effectively.

    Under the Tories I’d have been wandering the streets untreated for days and quite probably be dead by now.

    Instead I’ve been paying my taxes and helping look after aged parents keeping them from being a burden on the state.

    Politics and folks’ mental health are not unrelated.

    All the best!