By Ana Claudia De Castro Lima
This two-day online event explored productive, radical, contemporary encounters between the arts and mental health, bringing together clinical, artistic, and research perspectives that offered a re-interpretation of contemporary mental health science and practice, with a view of imagining a different future. This event was joined by more than 100 people including survivors, service users, mental health professionals, artists and researchers interested in how the arts can contribute to mental health.
The conference was opened by photographic artist Daniel Regan, who shared his discovery of the power of the arts in his own mental health journey. Daniel discussed the shame and stigma of living in crisis and how transforming his relationship to his lived experience turned it into his greatest asset. Consultant psychiatrist Dr Tom Cant introduced Peer Supported Open Dialogue and the ODDESSI* trial, a multicentre randomised control trial funded by the National Institute for Health Research. Developed in Finland in 1986, Open Dialogue is a social network model of mental healthcare where the person of concern is genuinely offered the power to define their recovery.
[*ODDESSI stands for Open Dialogue: Development and Evaluation of a Social Network Intervention for Severe Mental Illness]
On the second day, the artist keynote was given by playwright and theatre director Julie McNamara, an outspoken survivor of the mental health system, who works with people from locked-in spaces, foregrounding the stories of disavowed voices from the margins of our communities. People who have lived in long-care hospitals are not ordinarily perceived as artists and storytellers with meaningful contributions to make in our cultural industries. Julie talked about her creative process, staging the voices of women who transgress, women who fail to perform femininity as constructed in this ableist, patriarchal society. Lived expert consultant Amanda Griffith introduced the Power Threat Meaning Framework (PTMF), a radical approach to understanding emotional distress and wellbeing that is attracting interest both nationally and internationally. Aimed at a wide range of stakeholders, the framework highlights the links between personal, family and community distress and wider issues arising from social inequalities and injustices. This gives particular attention to the experiences of people and groups who have been exposed to abuses of power on the basis of their race, ethnicity, gender, class, religion, nationality, age, sexuality, disability, or their status as a mental health service user, and the way these identities and associated experiences of power intersect.
A series of panels invited discussion on different topics. In the panel led by the Centre for the History of Emotions at Queen Mary, the audience applauded the concept of “emodiversity”, developed as part of a programme for emotional literacy in primary schools, a superb pilot run by Prof Thomas Dixon.
Conference delegates participated in a Creative Enquiry all group activity, led by Dr Louise Younie, pioneer of the creative enquiry approach for flourishing in medical education. Moreover, selected participants were invited to present their artworks of poetry, painting and music: a delightful moment, inviting both aesthetic pleasure and reflection.
During discussions and reflections raised by this momentous event, the audience was enraptured and applauded the presented projects and innovative practices. Also, organizers and the public felt stimulated to discover new alternative approaches to mental health for future times, taking into account above all creativity, open dialogue, and direct participation from users of the health system.
It was clear that the bio-scientific, logical-rational, reductionist, and mechanistic model of mental health needs updating. An empathetic look, which gives rise to interpretive and communication abilities, is necessary to approach the idiosyncratic narratives brought by survivors and service users. In addition, the well-established hierarchy relationships within the mental health medical environment, which highlight authority and power, oppress and make stagnant the creativity and humanization that should permeate all human relationships. All this misinterpretation over mental health care leads to overly rigid and standardized models of approach, lacking human connection.
Hence, health professionals need to be open to access subjectivity and make deeper connections, giving voice and opportunity for self-expression. Ultimately, the arts seem to be a catalyst tool to materialize the inner turmoil of mental disorders, providing opportunities for representation and meaning-making, as well as being a fantastic means to well-being.