Awareness of mental well-being has improved greatly during my lifetime, but there’s still a long way to go before people living with mental difficulties are treated like others in need of care. Partly, perhaps, it’s because mental illness is often experienced by degrees, changeable in its internal and external effects. Like other illnesses, it may be acute or chronic; chronic conditions need to be managed, and it’s in that context that art has been so important for many people living with mental ill-health.
That reality has been an aspect of many community art projects I’ve worked in or researched, though it’s often unspoken because it’s not necessary or useful to name it. People gravitate towards activities that make them feel better, and that’s enough. Indeed, not naming that process can be a way of protecting it. Other community art projects, including some of the most impressive I’ve known, do work directly with people experiencing mental ill-health, and there’s another ambiguity here, in the borderlands between creative practice and therapy. For me, the difference lies in intention: therapy is a prescribed response to a diagnosed condition. Most participatory art stays on the human rather than the medical side of that boundary.
These thoughts are prompted by reading the Baring Foundation’s latest contribution to this field, Creatively Minded: The Directory, which lists 250 organisations involved in participatory arts and mental health. I am astonished by the sheer number of them, though most are small and many have a precarious existence. Still, it’s a massive expansion of this field, since I was last directly involved in it in the 1990s, a growth which probably reflects the changing attitudes to mental wellbeing I mentioned at the beginning. I have an interest here, since I’m a Baring Foundation trustee, and was involved in its decision to prioritise art and mental health during this decade. I hope that by careful allocation of its resources to these and similar organisations, and by drawing attention to the value of their work through publications like the Directory and the mapping study that preceded it, we can further strengthen a vital, but still fragile, part of the participatory arts sector. Who knows how many projects the next edition of this directory might include?
And, with growing concerns about the impact of the pandemic on mental health, that decision could not have come at a better time. We need to celebrate this work, that depends so much on courage and resilience, and ensure that it is really able to provide people with the resources they need to manage their wellbeing in human ways that suit them.
The image above is taken from the Directory and shows Hampshire Cultural Trust ICE Project’s workshop in a CAMHS clinic with artists from The Colour Factory, Winchester, © Strong Island Media.