By Ebony Francis, MA Photography student
at Central Saint Martins

image: speaker Jacqueline Dyer MBE – at the Art Mental Health Forum Event

I walked in just in time to find out if there was a scheduled fire alarm, running slightly late I was ushered to a seat reserved for me at the front. I quickly scanned the room for attendance and felt a quiet buzz of excited anticipation quickening its pace as the first speaker approached the podium.

Sal Anderson began, framing the day as it would unfold by challenging our ideas of the “normal and average”. She talked about the work she and others had done, important work with a strong ideology towards “new” ways of supporting and encouraging through the visual arts. She referenced this “new” approach by showing two films made by service users which served to not only reflect their own internal struggles but also the possibilities within film making to represent and challenge often unheard and unseen expressions of that struggle itself. These beautifully made films were a great way to start off the forum, a soft introduction to some of the more sobering accounts which were to follow.

Once Jacqueline Dyer stood up her strong magnetic presence was intoxicating, her work and awe inspiring accounts of her dedication to those with mental health issues, stemming from both personal and observed experiences was impressive. She talked about the “snow capped mountain” effect, a euphemism for what she later explained as being the disproportionate number of white male policy makers chosen to represent the increasing amounts of Black and Asian people presenting with mental health issues in Lambeth and indeed on national levels, a sentiment that speaker Dr Hemanth Rao would later continue. The audience hushed, perhaps in discomfort and for a moment Jacqueline wavered in her criticisms, however her contribution and experiences across all levels in mental health practice, coupled perhaps with the MBE which followed her name gave her the confidence to continue and the audience again became silenced in respect.

This was a great time to break for lunch and actually the day’s breaks were appropriately timed and somehow followed the mood of the audience perfectly. This was an opportunity for me and others to talk to those who attended. With a mixture of service users, care givers and artists the conversations over a buffet of sandwiches and finger foods were colourful and vibrant, everyone eager to give their own accounts with nods of gratitude for the event organisers and an optimism for what was to follow.  The Second half, having been watered and fed came and went quickly and what was perceived to be a long day went by without much thought of the time.

image: conversation over lunch at the Art Mental Health Forum Event

The next section with CoolTan Arts and Helen Shearn whilst interesting, with a combination of witty anecdotes and individual accounts could perhaps be criticised as being a little sales pitchy, institutional and perhaps even a little corporate in its approach. The energy waned slightly either because lunch had begun to settle in stomachs or because it was too much of a stark contrast to the exuberance of the mornings more personal accounts.

By the time Anna-Maria Amato had begun, her shy little voice forced everyone again to pay attention. Her intimate revelations about her own practice as a curator and service user shifted the mood to one of compassion and personal reflection as though we had all entered a group therapy session and didn’t know it, her question “if there was a switch…” lingering heavily on our minds. Once Sara Muzira came up to talk, we were all sober and alert, in contrast to Anna- Maria her voice strong and loud. Her accounts of her son Simba soon revealed the pain and anger which her strong demeanor hid so well.  The beautiful images of his work flooded the screen and served as a re-introduction to the art element of the forum an element that at times felt slightly lacking. By the end of Sara’s story, I along with others, I’m sure had eyes blinded by tears. So when Dr Dele Olajide stood up to talk of his account, his confession of perhaps failing Simba in some way, again the mood shifted, this time a disquieted anger and resentment appeared to seep from those who possibly too felt that doctors had failed them. Later comments in either support or in criticism of the current mental health care model and Dr Olajide’ assertion that there was a “personality behind the disease” would be expressed and challenged.

image: The Art Mental Health Forum

The day was drawing to a close and the three artists that presented work from both personal accounts or witnessed ones were a welcomed lightening of the mood. Dr Hemanth gave a revealing insight into the psychosis induced as a result of “chemsex” prevalent in the gay scene and echoed previous sentiments of an obvious racial division amongst mental health service users. His art work and research although maybe less easily relatable to everyone was both fascinating and saddening when coupled with the science and statistics which he was able to deliver with confidence.

In contrast Daniel Regan and Naomi Woddis’ accounts were hauntingly personal and stood as a visual representation for anyone who has ever suffered with a mental health issue whether severe or mild and functioned as a perfect end to the day and a sort of reminder of why we had all come. Their art work beautifully poignant and real stood as expressions of personal pain. Daniel’s work for the community was nothing short of inspirational whist Naomi’s ability to use her pain to create work both served as examples of how art can be used in mental health care approaches which again helped to summarise the day’s event charmingly.

image: Naomi Woddis at the Art Mental Health Forum

The forum itself at times felt curated like an art exhibition and others a mental health presentation, a diverse mix of multi hat wearers, professionals, artists and service users were able to provide both institutional insights as well as personal relatable and non relatable accounts of mental health. Unfortunately, speakers were difficult to hear especially for those at the back of the room which only really highlighted the lack of a good PA system in UAL lecture hall and perhaps the need for someone to invent a quieter projector but did nothing to disrupt the overall enthusiasm of the day. The “What Next?” section generated little momentum or cohesion as preference was given to the events closing drinks and networking section which was much more animated than what I had witnessed at lunch and as ideas, criticisms and contacts were exchanged gave the impression of the forum going far beyond its 6pm finish.

In conclusion, this event was a welcomed one giving me as well as many others I am sure, an opportunity to reflect on both their own mental health as well and the ways in which they address or support themselves and others in need. It was both encouraging and entertaining, at times distressing but always uplifting. Challenging perceptions about both art and mental health service users. The final question for me then being not what next, but what can I do?

About the Art Mental Health Forum

Socially Engaged Collaborative Art Practice ‘Living Archives’ and Mental Health Forum is led by MA Drawing student Jacqui-Ennis Cole and funded by the UAL Postgraduate Student Communities of Practice Fund.

“So many of us are impacted by ‘mental health’ concerns and some of us choose to address our concerns through our research and art practice”.

The Socially Engaged Collaborative Art Practice ‘Living Archives’ and Mental Health Forum held on 27th July at |UAL’s High Holborn site was initiated so as to create a ‘Safe Space’ where UAL’s MA, PhD, research staff and those working in the mental health field could meet and present research interests, art practice, personal experiences and engage in dialogue together within an environment that facilitates mutual understanding, support and inspiration.

This event was also to act as a catalyst in order to build a sustainable community of creatives interested in all aspects of mental health, who can stay in touch after graduation and work towards creating activity around the subject in the future.  Find out more about how to get involved here.

Speakers at the forum: