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Using creativity to bridge the mental health divide

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By | The Researcher’s View

For the seventh in our series on the Asylum and Beyond, Victoria Tischler considers creativity as a way to share experiences of mental illness.

I’ve been thinking about the line between those living with mental health problems and without. As someone who works in the field it is often obvious, even at social events, which side you are on. Anyway, it isn’t really a divide at all, it’s a continuum and we all fall somewhere along it. An artwork in Crichton Royal Hospital archive by William Bartholomew – ‘Cake Month – ain’t it ridik’lus?’ (1861) – reminds me of the plethora of factors involved in mental illness and of the power of art to captivate. The decorative and stylized work features a jumble of text, bizarre and seemingly unconnected images and historical references, reminiscent of a word (and image) salad.

Drawing by William Bartholomew

‘Cake Month – ain’t it ridik’lus?’ Drawing by William Bartholomew, 1861. Library reference: DGH/1/7/3/1/17.

Bartholomew was treated at by W. A. F. Browne, the medical superintendent at Crichton from 1838–1857, a very early proponent of moral treatment, and an enthusiast for the use of art in mental health care. Browne recognized the artistic talent of his patients, authoring a treatise on ‘Mad Artists’ in 1880. Thus began the one of the earliest formative attempts to document the creative potential of mental health.

Whether you ascribe to genetic, social or environmental causes, countless of us will experience mental illness, yet many remain reluctant to reveal this publicly. It’s mainly to do with stigma and fear. People are afraid, of a world upside down, rather like that portrayed in another work by an unknown Crichton patient – the ‘Dipsomaniac’.

Seascape by patient at Crichton Royal Hospital

Seascape with upside down view. Watercolour by unknown patient at Crichton Royal Hospital, 1850s. Inscription on reverse reads ‘Dipsomaniac’. Library reference: DGH/1/7/3/1/91.

We continue to be haunted by images of the raving lunatic of yore locked up, out of view. Madness has long been associated with otherworldly possession, deviance and criminality. In the past incarceration in an asylum was a spectacle; worthy of public visitors, for others out of sight was out of mind. This dilemma still resounds in the public imagination; a place where morbid fascination meets denial. Even more pertinent nowadays is the prejudice and discrimination that those living with mental health problems experience.

In some respects contemporary mental healthcare has not changed much. Asylums that were once places of respite are now voluntary yet locked repositories for the mad and insufferable, offering scant regard to aesthetics. The closure of asylums and moves to provide care in the community mean that mental health problems are more visible yet the stigma remains. High profile revelations by people such as  Professor Jamie Hacker Hughes, Vice President of the British Psychological Society, and  celebrities such as Emma Thompson and Catherine Zeta-Jones about episodes of mental illness have brought the issue into the mainstream, although the dark shadow remains.

As someone who has worked in the mental health field in clinical, academic and voluntary sectors for more than two decades, I still struggle with how best to help those who experience mental health problems.

Using powerful art as its focus, and led by those with lived experience of mental health problems, the ‘Expert by Experience’ led organisation, Daily Life Ltd, uses innovative and creative methods to challenge stigma and negativity and to change thinking about mental health. A recent Daily Life Ltd event-  The Roving Diagnostic Unit Late Spectacular – demonstrated how role modelling, authenticity and creativity could engage the public in a fun, playful and attractive way. These latter factors are key. Mental health issues are not typically associated with fun, play and attractiveness.

Power pants

Power pants at the Roving Diagnostic Unit Late Spectacular. Image credit: Priya Mistry.

A stellar line up of talented artists including Dylan Tighe and Priya Mistry (my personal highlights) mesmerised their audiences and got people involved, indeed some proudly wore their personalised Power Pants all night long! The evening culminated with a performance by the enigmatic and legendary Bobby Baker, artistic director of Daily Life Ltd. The entire event embraced and enhanced by the wondrous ambiance of the William Morris gallery. It was all about mental health but it didn’t feel like it. It was quite simply an amazing and memorable night out.

This approach works yet I wouldn’t advocate it for everyone. Mental health is fluid, and people are heterogeneous, so one approach doesn’t suit all. There is still much to do and to learn, especially from people with experience of mental illness. They continue to live with multiple and severe disadvantage. In parts of the world, being mentally ill means being physically chained up, some remain shackled by pharmaceuticals or demons within them, provoked by childhood adversity or other traumatic experiences. Social and economic inequality divides us all, not just those who experience ill health.

Yet we all retain the capacity to be creative. Creativity offers a bridge across the divide between those who experience mental illness and those who don’t, in doing so it can create connections and profound change.


Victoria Tischler is a freelance curator, researcher and psychologist. Her research interests focus on art and mental health.

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