After I had a mental breakdown in 2011, the years that followed were a revolving door of various doctors and departments that all tried to give some sort of meaning back to the life I felt I had already lost. I tried a few medications, several kinds of therapy, and sat in more psychiatrists' offices than I can count. Nothing seemed to work particularly well—or at least it didn't work well enough.
In the end, my recovery was dependent on a few things. Medical intervention, in some ways. Supportive family and friends, of course. But, importantly, on my better days, I wrote, churning out hundreds of pages of creative writing. Whether it was objectively good or bad was irrelevant, as the therapeutic benefits were undeniable.
The clichéd link between creativity and mental health is nothing new. What is, however, is not the overly simplistic idea that creative people are more prone to mental illness, but the reverse—when ordinary people with symptoms of mental illness engage in creativity and the arts, there's a chance they're more likely to get better. It's an idea that's gaining interest in both the arts and mental health sectors alike.
When 23-year-old Nicole de Leiburne started experiencing symptoms of anxiety, she was frustrated that all her local doctor could offer her was a prescription. Instead, she turned to creative outlets such as filmmaking, photography, and writing as a way to understand her issues, and later set up mental health organization Don't Just Stare. "I found it a way of feeling confident in myself again, and it made me feel like I had a purpose," she explains. "The arts make people feel like they're worth something and part of something. I think that is the key to better mental health, not necessarily labeling things with 'therapy' or 'anti-depressants.'" Since 2014, the group has run talks and events in London and Brighton about how engaging in creativity can benefit mental health. And they're not the only organization exploring the growing mainstream interest between mental health and the arts.
Earlier this year, the Southbank Centre ran a two-day festival called Changing Minds, entirely devoted to exploring what creativity can do for mental health. The festival's senior programmer for literature and spoken word, Ted Hodgkinson, tells me that the festival was created from "a kind of awakening going on" in terms of arts and mental health. "It was one of those moments where there was an opportunity for us to help to create a space for a conversation that was on the cusp of happening," he says.
Similarly, Paul Monks, director of CoreArts, an arts and mental health charity in Hackney that offers creative courses to those with enduring mental health issues, agrees that although there has always been an acknowledged link between mental health and creativity, it's become more prominent recently. He tells me he's noticed a general rise in the number of health service providers looking towards creative therapies. "I have been going to arts and well-being conferences for twenty years, so the discourse has been there all the time… but as part of a wider trajectory of making the arts a part of how health trusts work, that's new."
But does it actually work?
According to a report released by London's City and Hackney Wellbeing Network, which looked at hospital readmission rates of CoreArts members between April and September 2015, 97 percent of the 113 people who took part were well enough to stay out of hospital during their time on the creative program, compared to 17 percent in the year before they joined. Though this doesn't take into account other factors that may play into someone's recovery—like other medication or therapy they might be using alongside of it—it does seem to suggest there's a strong link between art and mental health.
Although art projects like this cost money to fund in the first place, there's some evidence they can actually save on healthcare costs in the long run. The same report predicts that the reduction in hospital admissions that creative therapies at CoreArts has helped support has saved the UK's National Health Service approximately $575,000 in costs in that same six month period.
So why aren't more people being offered things such as art or creative therapies?
"The focus isn't on the creative work but how you can process your feelings and how you look at yourself."—Rachel Boyd
It seems whether you're offered creative therapies often depends on two things: where you live, and how ill you are. Rachel Boyd, the information manager for mental health charity Mind—which has been campaigning against the "postcode lottery" around access to mental health services—says that "for a lot of people it's not on their radar." Creative therapies are often only "available in hospital settings so [people] have to have a crisis before they can get access to them." Add this to an ever-mounting crisis in the mental health sector, and you've got a situation where many people are wanting to engage in the arts as an aid to mental health, but aren't in a situation to do so.
That said, there is pressure for more investment in the art-based therapies, and it's coming from a variety of avenues. The push for greater accessibility to the arts from school-age onward is one important step, which campaigns like the petition to include expressive arts in secondary schools are attempting to achieve. There's also the example being set by mental health charities, too—Mind, for example, invested about $60,000 in artistic projects last year through its Creative Therapies fund—and large-scale arts and mental-health events, such as the Southbank Centre's, are showing that people are eager to look to other options to take instead of, or alongside, traditional clinical methods. But as with any strive for change, it begins with the individual.
"Everyone can be creative," Boyd suggests. "The focus isn't on the work but how you can process your feelings and how you look at yourself. It's useful if people think of it as tools they can use, not skills they have to already have."
Nicole de Leiburne, founder of Don't Just Stare, agrees, saying, "Creativity is a general thing. Any human on this planet can be creative… There's art in cooking, there's art in singing, there's in dancing, there's art in so many things."
It's too simplistic to suggest the arts can solve the mental health crisis in itself or eradicate the need for medication and therapy, as successful routes to recovery will vary depending on each person, his or her preferences, and his or her own mental health problems. However, with a growing push for using creative means to help traditionally clinical problems, there's some hope that the future will see more funding and debate into how the arts can—and do—improve the mental health of so many of us.