Introduction

What this resource is, what it isn’t, and what we hope to achieve.

Over the past few years, more and more people have been making creative projects that are explicitly about mental health.

In some of these, artists have shared stories about their own experiences of anxiety, depression, childhood trauma and, increasingly, identity and neurodivergence. In others, artists have encouraged or supported other people to open up about their mental health. While there is still considerable stigma surrounding mental health, as a society we seem increasingly open to talking about it, and this is reflected in the kind of art being made.

In recent years the Mental Health Foundation’s arts team has frequently been contacted by people looking for guidance as to how to make creative projects addressing mental health in a responsible way. We have often found that artists making work about mental health have learned, based on trial and error, strategies that they are then able to share with others. We have observed a sense of community among people who explore mental health in their work, despite very different backgrounds and approaches. There is even a sense that ‘mental health arts’ at some point became a genre in itself, although one that’s difficult to define precisely. And we’ve seen how empowering it can be to talk to others and compare experiences, successes and failures, and working methods.

Much of this conversation, though, remains undocumented – or rather uncollected. There are many people with expertise in this area. There are artists who were operating in this field before anyone else, creating influential work. But there is a lack of coherent, user-friendly guidance to how to negotiate this complex territory.

When we began working on this resource, we imagined a set of best practice guidelines, drawing on the experience of some of those artists, such as activist the vacuum cleaner, performance artist Bryony Kimmings, theatre-makers Mariem Omari and Selina Thompson, and comedians
such as Juliette Burton and Felicity Ward.

With mental health, though, people’s experiences are as varied as their personalities. Working with a wellbeing practitioner can be transformative for one person and frustrating for another. A check-in session at the start of a rehearsal can be relaxing for one person and stressful for another, depending on what makes them anxious. Trigger warnings can help to identify potentially upsetting material, but triggers are often personal to individual experience, so can be difficult to predict.

And so what we have ended up with is something slightly different – a collection of individual stories, in which performers, producers, programmers and activists from the ‘mental health arts’ world describe what has worked for them and what hasn’t.

We’ve done our best to sum up our findings in a good practice guide, as well as a five episode podcast.

Two of our interviewees, Mariem Omari and Bryony Kimmings, spoke to us for three hours, carefully re-examining all the decisions, and mistakes, they made while learning their craft, and acting as consultants as we tried to summarise our findings into guidelines. We invited two others, the vacuum cleaner and Selina Thompson, to expand on our conversations with written provocations. We are grateful to all of them – and to all our other interviewees – for their time.

This is a collection of individual stories, in which performers, producers, programmers and activists from the ‘mental health arts’ world describe what has worked for them and what hasn’t.

This is obviously not an exhaustive survey. Firstly, the resource focuses almost entirely on live work. Some of the people we spoke to make performance; others work in a participatory way with different communities. Our thinking here was that there is a particular dynamic in creative work that brings people together in a live situation, and that this is where the kinds of safeguarding issues we were keen to explore are most apparent. For example, making a live performance about your mental health is very different from making a painting or a film about your mental health. One involves being in a room, possibly night after night, sharing a mental health experience with a group of people in a live situation. The other can be done while maintaining a distance between artist and audience, or even complete anonymity.

Secondly, there is a slight bias towards Scotland. The Mental Health Foundation’s arts programme is largely run from Scotland, where the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival has been doing pioneering work for almost two decades now. Around a third of the people we interviewed are based here. These are artists with whom we have built a relationship of trust over years of programming; the result of that trust is the kind of open conversations that are essential for a resource like this.

Thirdly, a majority of interviewees are female. Our experience is that most of the people who have extensive experience of working in the arts on mental health projects – ie: the people whose expertise was most relevant to this project – are female. This notably includes women, such as Mariem Omari and Bryony Kimmings, who have created ground-breaking projects about men’s mental health, sometimes at the expense of their own. The stigma around men even participating in mental health arts projects, never mind leading them, is well documented. The Baring Foundation, which funded this resource, recently published a report called Creatively Minded Men which addresses this subject. It is an issue we are also aware of and will continue to address.

We’ve tried to highlight some of the best work that has been done in recent years, the people responsible for it, and what they have learned from their experiences.

This resource, then, is a work in progress, consciously so. We hope to add more voices to it (if you would like to be one of them, please get in touch with us at smhaf@mentalhealth.org.uk). Meanwhile, we’ve tried to highlight some of the best work that has been done in recent years, the people responsible for it, and what they have learned from their experiences. We hope you will find it helpful.

Andrew Eaton-Lewis
Arts Programme Officer
Mental Health Foundation
June 2024