The strengthening relationship between the arts and mental health

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Mental illness is prominent in any stressful environment, and university life is no different. Our university provides a number of resources to help students understand and cope with mental illness through Student Services, online resources, and several organisations connected to the University such as Student Minds, Wellbeing and Nightline. Support is offered by these sources in a variety of ways, and the manner in which this support is delivered is creatively evolving. St Andrews Mental Health Awareness Week, which took place 13-19 April, hosted several events in order to live up to its namesake, and two creative ventures stood out in particular: INTROSPECT: Experiences with Mental Illness and Mermaids does Mental Health.

INTROSPECT was an art exhibition organised by Student Minds St Andrews alongside photographer Conner Somerville, a fourth year Computer Science student. The event took place just after the official end of the Mental Health Awareness Week on the 20 April in the St Andrews Brewing Company. The exhibition’s purpose was to raise awareness of mental illness through creative expression, with submissions being a variety of art forms such as photography, painting, and poetry. Submissions dealt mainly with direct and indirect experiences with mental illness, and the exhibition proved to be a reflective and thought-provoking space, successfully achieving what was set out to do.

Credit: Conner Somerville

Mermaids’ event on 15 April was more interactive, offering people the opportunity to take part in a workshop devoted to mental health and its connection to the arts. The workshop covered a lot in a short time, commencing with de-stressing techniques: writing or drawing one’s feelings and then tearing them up. Afterwards, everyone was split up into pairs to get to know each other, and then once pairs felt comfortable, muscle relaxation techniques were taught and performed within the pairs. Theatre as a whole was then examined in terms of the way in which mental health is presented in theatre. The workshop finished with a group debate, where concerns such as the most useful form of representation of mental health in performance art were brought up and discussed.

Kara Gooding, a third year Psychology and Philosophy student who attended the workshop said, “it was really worthwhile to think about how film and theatre do and can deal with mental health, to see how people differed in what they thought was acceptable or not acceptable (without any one side being explicitly right) and the impact society as a whole has on how art about mental health can be presented. It showed that both society as well as film and theatre are responsible for understanding mental health and representing it responsibly.”

The representation and consideration of mental illness is evolving through creative means, these two interesting and informative events being evidence of the shift in perception, and through art stigma is being broken down. However, art plays an even more interactive role in mental illness, through what is known as ‘art therapy’. For a long time now, means of creative expression such as art, dance, music and drama have all been considered positive and effective strategies when coping with mental illness.

Credit: The Aurora Crossing
Credit: The Aurora Crossing
Art is created through thoughts and feelings. Using one’s heightened and magnified emotions in order to create something positive amidst mental distress has proven to be a popular method of therapy. Art is being used everywhere as a means of escapism and relaxation – I recently walked through Waterstones on Market Street, where adult art therapy colouring in books are so popular that they have taken over an entire display table. These are high quality, detailed books that feature beautiful images such as mandalas and stained glass windows. They give people the opportunity to take a break away from stress, and use their frustration to create something beautiful.
Creative expression is becoming rapidly accepted as an extremely useful resource for those living with mental illness, both through increasing awareness and knowledge, and in providing people with an opportunity to use art as a coping mechanism. This recognition can only prove to be beneficial for a town such as St Andrews, where opportunities of creative expression are readily available at our fingertips. With a wide range of artistic, literary, theatrical and performance societies thriving, one can only hope that the increasingly positive links between mental health and the arts will encourage students to get involved with the arts they enjoy, and that this will result in their minds and bodies benefitting from this involvement.

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