#Unafraid: Mental Health in Words

Christina Thatcher reading her poemsPoetry is not just for ‘arty’ types, it’s for everyone, so it’s good to see scientists and creatives working together. Last week I attended an event organised by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, to celebrate their work with Patrick Jones, their current artist in residence. The event also showcased the work of other poets who have written about mental health issues, as well as patients who’ve benefitted from the therapeutic aspects of writing, but its main focus was as a starting point, a bringing together of psychiatrists and poets in the same space, to enable discussion and debate about what more can be done…  

Patrick Jones began by referring to the buzzwords of “emotional literacy” and “resilience”, suggesting that we “never hear people talk about what that really means, or how we retain this ‘resilience’… but the arts can help us to ‘name’ it – the depression, or the isolation – and because you can name it, then you can start to challenge it, and start the process of healing”.

Patrick explained how writing helped him to get through an extremely difficult period in his life, when he was trapped in an abusive and controlling relationship. He read us several poems from this time, with gut-wrenching lines such as “My home is a cage that I cannot escape” and “I sit in my stomach, a cramped stasis”.

Patrick Jones reading

Patrick Jones

We also heard from Mab Jones, whose poem ‘Night Ship’ uses metaphor to evoke her experience of selective mutism as a child. Another of her poems, ‘Lover’, describes the surreal experience of visiting a boyfriend in the Llandough Psychiatric Unit:

Your mind, like blown glass,
has cracked.

They have taped up
what they can. Only a few
fragments are missing.

We also heard from Parvin Ziaei, who was forced to flee her home in Tehran as a young woman. She read several of her own poems about facing the trauma of her past.

Christina Thatcher read to us from her book, More than you were, about the grief she has felt for her father, who was an addict and passed away not long ago. Her poem ‘Playing Nice’, examines the strange etiquette of therapy, and metaphor:

When the therapist told me
to create my own metaphor for grief –
to represent it as a tall mountain
or grains of sand trickling into a jar –
I could only think of machetes.
Could only remember the man
who collected them in Philly
and chased children down the street –
wild, unpredictable, violent.

She also read some newer poems, about the anxiety of caring for a family member who suffers from addiction, and explained that writing has helped her to cope with this.

Mair Elliot reading and speaking

Mair Elliot

Eric Ngalle Charles performed some of his poems for us, recalling the trauma of rejection and persecution from his own family in Cameroon. The first part of his autobography is due to be published soon.

We also heard from Mair Elliot, a patient representative, as well as an autism and mental health campaigner. She spoke about growing up in a family of scientists, and how she ended up engaging in the arts:

“My natural reaction to engaging with the arts is that I am going against expectations. Isn’t that a terrifying thing? Stepping off the straight and predictable track, into a world with no tracks whatsoever.

In the end my stepping off the tracks was an explosive, chaotic, painful eventuality. Propelled at full thrust into a world of doctors, nurses, medications, therapists, the mental health act, psychiatric units, being institutionalised, and so forth. It was this deeply painful, traumatic wrench in my life that connected me to my creative side.”

Her poem ‘De-escalation’ describes this trauma,

In medicated stupor I sit,
single mattress on the floor,
Wondering what did I commit?
To be behind a locked door.

The ‘de-escalation room’,
Plain, boring, empty, clinical,
the ‘difficult patient’ store-room
…that’s just me being ‘cynical’

Her poem goes on to describe the impact of art therapy, saying ‘Finally, I could process, / Express my frightful mind’, ending the poem with this:

Consider early-man’s cave paintings,
they could have been catching food
Yet, they patiently sat creating
Therefore, there’s only one thing to conclude;

Art is fundamentally human
From beginning to end
To deny us art, you call us subhuman,
My right to create, I’ll defend.

You ask, what is art to mental health,
I ask, what is mental health without art?

She finished with this honest and practical conclusion:

“Although I can’t speak on behalf of anyone else, my experience has taught me that art, whether writing, painting, singing or other, has a profound effect on my mental health. The false dichotomy between science and art has leached into healthcare, creating a system heavily reliant on the medical model. I don’t dispute that it has its place, but not in the absence of natural human creativity.

Anyone who’s been in a psychiatric unit will agree with me – the whole experience is just the most maddening, funny, sad, bizarre, harrowing situation you could ever imagine yourself in. Art, intentional or not, spills from the walls and ceilings like an unexpected burst pipe. Why not harness that for its healing power? Why not give people the space to spill their troubles onto a page? Why not facilitate recovery through the power of creativity?  As I’ve already said, it seems art existed before civilisation, in fact many would argue that the development of creativity was the beginning of human civilisation. It’s in our fundamental nature to be artists. If we deny ourselves the fruition of a fundamental part of being, then how will we ever expect to feel well?”

Mark Smith finished off the evening, reading his own poems about the realities of living with a mental health condition, from the need to take medication: “an adult chemistry set – volatile if forgotten” to the solitude of suffering inside your own head. He then made some suggestions to the psychiatrists in the room, asking for simple changes such as “it would be nice to be asked what’s happened to you? not what’s wrong with you?” He also talked about his new organisation 66/99, the name of which was inspired by the horrifying statistic that there is one suicide in the world every forty seconds, which equates to 99 suicides in every 66 minutes, and the two numbers happen to look like quotation marks, which might frame creative content.

The event ended with a brief discussion, and a few suggestions from the audience, about how this could be taken forward, including ideas around multilingualism, and the establishment of a festival geared towards celebrating the use of creativity in mental health. It felt like the beginning of something positive, and I can only hope, knowing that so many arts practitioners give their time for free, that more funding and resources will follow, to allow these things to develop further.

Sunflower and I is a very interesting venue

The event was held at Sunflower and I – a cafe / bar in Cardiff Bay, where they are very big on interior decoration…