Reclaiming Our Heritage Project

Episode Three: The Impact of Art on Mental Health

In this episode, Halina Rifai speaks to guest Andrea Spink, an art psychotherapist, about the impact of art on mental health with the help of testimonies from Donna, John and Alina from the Reclaiming Our Heritage archive.

Reclaiming Our Heritage is a Mental Health Foundation podcast inspired by its two-year oral history project supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The project’s aim is to record and preserve the spoken testimonies of the mental health community between the 1950s and early 2000s.

Each episode will explore themes that have come out of these spoken testimonies, and these will be further discussed by a professional guest. The full interviews by these contributors and others are available in the Reclaiming Our Heritage archive.

In this episode, Halina Rifai speaks to guest Andrea Spink, an art psychotherapist, about the impact of art on mental health with the help of testimonies from Donna, John and Alina from the Reclaiming Our Heritage archive. 

The Reclaiming our Heritage project is funded by a number of donors including an “Our Heritage” grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. 

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Episode Transcript

Donna: I kinda think in rhymes or like in rhythm, so, that’s what I was using and then when I had the antidepressants, I noticed the poetry changing.

John: I went to that play in the chapel, and I will never, ever forget that.It was how should I say it? I saw it transforming people.

Alina: It was not just a state of physical, mental, emotional, social wellbeing, but also enabling a person to fulfil their creative potential.

Welcome to Reclaiming Our Heritage, a Mental Health Foundation podcast inspired by its two-year oral history project supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The project’s aim is to record and preserve the spoken testimonies of the mental health community between the 1950s and early 2000s. The full interviews by these contributors and others are available in the Reclaiming Our Heritage archive on the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival website.

My name is Halina Rifai, and in each episode I will explore themes and these will be further discussed by a professional guest. The Reclaiming Our Heritage project is funded by a number of donors including an Our Heritage grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

On this podcast we’ll be exploring the impact of art on mental health and hearing from different voices on this theme from the Reclaiming Our Heritage archive.  

We’ll also be exploring themes of creativity and the arts because the thing that “ties all these voices together is their involvement in mental health and the arts” Our expert on this episode is Andrea Spink

Halina Rifai: Hi, how are you?

Andrea Spink: Hello, I’m fine. Thank you. Good to meet you.

HR: Good to meet you too. And I really appreciate you being here. So first of all, can you just introduce yourself and just tell us a bit about your background?

AS: Yeah, my name is Andrew Spink and I am an art psychotherapist, I started off as far as when I was young and really being interested in art. It was a big part of my life. And it was what I was drawn to is kind of a way of me, kind of, I suppose working things out expressing things. I also used to write a lot. And then that just kind of landed me in kind of arts in the community. And I ended up working in kind of art centres and schools with children, and then in colleges and data centres with adults with complex needs and learning and physical disabilities, and then training to be in therapy about 20 years ago. And since then, I’ve worked in adult community health, great. So

HR: It’s quite a varied landscape that you’ve covered. And it’s really nice to hear about the different types of people that you’ve worked with as well. So I guess that it would be a great point now just to explore some of the archived voices that we have and talk about the theme a bit further. We’re going to start off with Donna and Donna was born in 1975 and grew up in Blantyre, and currently works as a mental health nurse. And the clip that we’re about to hear just goes into great detail about Donna’s background, also

[CLIP] DONNA [Isabel Interviewing]

DM: Well, I’m trying to remember, it was 2014 that I, you know, became aware of the Scottish Mental Health Art and Film Festival stuff, I had just finished my training, I think I went to a screening of a film, I can’t remember what it was called, but it was about the kind of suicide epidemic in Brazil, I want to say, but I can’t remember, so…in a South American country, anyway, and it was just really interesting. And I started following the SMHAFF, as I call it, but my own personal experience of using the arts in relation to mental health is that I had my second child in 2006 and I had…I think I had depression whilst I was pregnant, because I had a really hard pregnancy and ended up in hospital before I had the baby, so it wasn’t a great experience anyway, and I think I was quite low then.

And then after the birth, it was a really traumatic birth, I had an emergency Caesarean section, and I’d had one before with my first daughter, and I was trying to avoid it, and wasn’t able to…you know, it happened again, kind of thing, and then after that I was physically very unwell. I had an infected blood clot because of the surgery, and it was kind of on my lung, it was hard to breathe, and I just had lots of kind of physical health issues, so probably really high risk for postnatal depression.

And that was kind of identified by my health visitor about maybe eight weeks or something like that, because she knew that there was something not right. I think I was quite lucky, it was previously the health visitor had been my school nurse when I was at primary school, so she knew me and family and what have you, and she knew that I wasn’t quite right. I was just going through the motions, I’d just had a baby, I had a wee toddler who was delightful, and I was just so flat. I wasn’t…I never recognised it as postnatal depression or even the baby blues, because I wasn’t thinking straight, and because I wasn’t crying, I wasn’t sitting crying all day.

That’s what I thought depression was, that you were thinking hopeless things and crying all day, and anything made you cry, kind of thing, and I wasn’t, I was just…it was just nothing. And I was doing the…I was being a good mum as in I was taking care of their physical needs, and I was there to help them and manage them, but I wasn’t feeling anything, just blank, it was horrible. So that’s…you know, that was the start of that journey, and I used…I found myself, I was offered support through the GP for talking therapy, and was like, absolutely not, why would I want to speak to a stranger, blah, blah, blah, and I didn’t know what it was that was wrong.

I didn’t even know what I would say, and had been offered antidepressants as well, and I was horrified at antidepressants, so I tried to find my…muddle my own way through for about six months. And that was probably when I started finding…writing things down was helpful, just to get it out. So it was May that I had my daughter, by Christmas time, I decided that, you know, nothing had shifted very much and went and got antidepressants, and it was like a…honestly, it was life-changing, it was a miracle, and they helped really quickly, like within kind of four to six weeks I noticed a difference and felt as if I was getting back to myself.

So when I had started writing things down, it was poems that I was writing, because I think I’ve got just quite an artistic nature anyway, and I kind of think in rhymes or like in rhythm, so that’s what I was using, and then when I had the antidepressants, I noticed the poetry changing. So then when I looked back, when I was much better, and I looked back, because it was really a journey of about two years actually, and when I looked back on it, it was like, you could see when it was really, really bleak, and then you could see it changing and being thoughtful about just life and what I could change in my life.

So something like that rather than just hopeless, I don’t know even know what to do, this is horrible, to starting to think about what I wanted and what I could change, and then just to kind of noticing nice things and enjoying myself.

HR: So, that was Donna and Donna speaks here about how hard her pregnancy was the traumatic birth she experienced and then she talks about the subsequent depression that she developed along with the aid of antidepressants, she discovered writing and poetry and how she used this almost like a journal. What are some of the other arts you’ve seen that have helped people to connect with their thoughts and feelings?

AS: I suppose I’ve been involved in using art, you know, art materials, generally, that’s my primary mode. And so, obviously, all types of materials can lend themselves to expression of different feelings. So whether it be paint or clay, or powdery pastels, and obviously the environment in which that is in so I used these things, in outdoor environments, in schools with children in terms of just having fun, that being the focus. And I suppose I could see that children especially and, and adults with learning disabilities, were using them to express very deep down feelings, and I could see that they were coming out in the use of the art materials. So they do lend themselves very easily to expression. And that’s I suppose what led me into my kind of interest in art therapy in the end and why trend in it. But along the way, I’ve come across lots of other arts like music therapy obviously, I’ve worked alongside music therapists. I worked in a boarding school with adolescents with severe autism and complex needs, and saw firsthand how music could be so useful in allowing for children and young people to really express feelings, and yeah have have, and those being a real spectrum of feelings from real joy and being in the moment. And having a connection with whoever the person in the room is with you facilitating that. And whatever happens within that connection to two really difficult, you know, more distressing feelings that can also be accessed and, and felt and expressed. And, and, and acknowledged and understood and really heard, which is often needed, if they’ve had to be repressed or couldn’t be heard at the time of when they were felt. Yeah, there’s also obviously within the arts therapist is the psychodrama and there’s dance movement therapy, all of which have unique and individual ways in which they can lend themselves to people being able to express different things. I just actually finished a training course with somebody in stop frame animation as well, which was, was, yeah, it was amazing. Actually, it was for a group of arts like the original group of psychotherapists, and we were learning from a from a great facilitator about how he was using it working with people who had experienced trauma. And he’d worked with people in prisons, and refugees, all of the hoops they were having to jump through and what with a lack of language, what, what that was bringing up in them, and how actually using the stop frame animation, it stopped them from being triggered, that their trauma being triggered, and felt something about being able to stand outside of the process. And think of the other practical details that were needed, helped them just tell a story, it was amazing, can really understand how Donna could access that and find ways of expressing yourself in that kind of rhythmic way that kind of catching hold of maybe adjectives and words that could really kind of capture a feeling and an experience for her without needing to explain it too much, or answer questions or think about it in a different way. Just yeah,

HR: Yeah. I guess just to provide a bit of a segue to the next question. I I guess that so many people have a kind of stereotype about what art is, and the misconception that it’s inaccessible, or it’s highbrow or even people thinking I’m just not good. I suppose sometimes people think that can be an overly expensive activity that you need a certain skill for. But the reality is that anyone can make art at pretty much any time as well. Have you faced challenges in trying to convey that? And if so, how?

Yeah, all the time? Yes, I mean, obviously, we’re in a culture where there’s sort of talking therapies and sort of cognitive behavioural therapy is kind of priced and takes up a lot of space in the NHS and the outs therapists. Yeah, underrepresented, I think at times, but actually, they can be really useful for really accessing feelings that maybe can’t be verbalised, or aren’t quite at that stage of being able to be thought about it that way. So, yeah, people are faced with a blank sheet of paper, or a lump of clay can really feel quite frightened by it. And it’s, it takes a lot of work, actually, to sometimes get people to a stage where they’re able to engage just with the art materials, but I think what can really help is allowing people to let go of those preconceptions of, like you said, what we think of as art and actually strip that away and think, Well, actually, I can, like you say, be anything, you know, it’s a creative act, and it can be the ripping up of paper, the, it doesn’t have to also be, you know, art materials used in the conventional way, we have to try and allow people and get the permission to, to cut into things, if they’re feeling that needed to cut things up, you know, they might be feeling messy inside. And that has to be, then in some way shape, or, you know, can be that, that they make a mess. And that’s equally as important as making a an image that might be admired on a wall. But I do think that we are kind of brought up in an education system where, you know, at nursery stage, it can be quite free and open and allow and sort of self directed, where children are often allowed to just be free, but very quickly, at sort of age of five, we end up you know, getting kind of compartmentalised and pushed into boxes and, and given themes and told how to do things and actually, at senior school, high school, you know, it becomes much narrower and yeah, we feel that there is just one way of doing it, which is often representational. And then if we can’t do that, then we don’t feel good. So that can be very difficult and we have to work with that as adults and allowing people to own their own creativity, whatever that is, and alignment specifying that play is a really good way. The emphasis isn’t often sometimes on the end product, it’s on the process. So they might not even be an end product. But sometimes there is and that in product can be very, very important and cherished, and need to be kept very safe. And that’s part of the work and they come back to it. But actually, sometimes, it’s just some weeks about making a mess. And, and that’s saying a lot.

HR: Yes, there’s three things there. It’s expressive communication, discovering your inner child and also process over product. And I think I totally agree, I think we, I have had this conversation a lot. And we just often forget that and yeah, love to go back to that, that freedom, that free flow. So I want to move on to our next testimony. And it’s from John, who was born in 1947, and grew up in a place called Borg which is part of Dumfries and Galloway. He left school at 15. And to work on a farm with his dad for nine years. But he left the area and got married in 1974. He then joined the prison service and Barlinnie and stayed up until 2009 and retired and worked with the prisons department in Turkey for six months. He then returned from that became a member of the parole board for Scotland for seven years and fully retired, finally became very interested in suicide prevention, mental health as part of his work in prisons, and was on the prison services national suicide prevention group as well.

[CLIP] JOHN [Sarah Interviewing]

SD: Okay. So you talked a wee bit there about when you first came across – is it Theatre Nemo?

JMC: Theatre Nemo, yes.

SD: And you felt like it wasn’t going to be something that would benefit, perhaps. Can you talk a wee bit about why you felt that, initially?

JMC: I mean, I was brought into the Prison Service in an era where it was a very closed environment. I mean, it became more open as the years went on. But there was a lot of people wanted to get access to the prisons, not always for the right reasons. And I’d never heard of Isabel or Theatre Nemo. So I wasn’t sure if she was one of these kind of crazy lefties who just wanted to get in and disrupt the place, if you like. So I was suspicious, I was always suspicious of people wanting to come in and do something that wasn’t, how should we say, wasn’t evidence based. I mean, what Theatre Nemo was doing wasn’t evidence based, it was very much, you know, experienced but not based on evidence. So that was why I initially rejected the notion of it. I thought, what can taiko drumming do to help people, or what can…you know. But I can always remember after – and this is one of these sort of road to Damascus moments, you know what I mean –  she came back in and we were forced to agree to…she’d come up with the money and I couldn’t use the money as an excuse to reject her again. And she got a group of prisoners working. I mean there was Hugh and I can’t remember the other guy that used to come in, but they came in and they worked with prisoners and they did a play. And I went to that play in the chapel and I will never ever forget it. It was, how should I say, it…I saw it transforming people. And, do you know, we had visitors in to see it as well and eventually we were getting prisoners’ families to come in and see them.

And just to see what it did for people’s self esteem, because they were telling a story. And they were telling a story that, do you know what, you would need to be really callous not to listen to the story about how life had treated them, how they got where they were. But when that was past and the feeling of wellbeing, of having achieved something, was really amazing, you know. And it was, I have to say to you, it was nothing what you would say you would put on at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow or whatever. But nonetheless, it was the first time that these people had done anything. So it gave them a great sense of achievement.

I mean, it was like when we trained the young offenders to be listeners. They would be…I say young offenders, they were the older young offenders, they would be maybe 19, 20, more mature. But we had a presentation evening when we handed over the certificates and we invited their parents to come to that evening. And just to see the pride that their kids had done something, you know what I mean, that was worthwhile and they were going to be doing something really worthwhile. And it’s about this – giving people the opportunity to show that they can do something. I mean, it was like when we introduced the listener scheme to Greenock. It didn’t work properly to start with, it wasn’t working. So we arranged a conference between the listeners and the staff and we ran that over a Friday afternoon and a Saturday morning, to thrash out the problems. And I remember saying to the then governor and to the two ladies who were in from the Samaritans, if somebody had told me in 1974 or ’75 that one day I would be sitting down with staff and prisoners, trying to work out how to run a prison, I would have been laughed at. I would have been absolutely laughed at. And it was about us moving that culture on.

And it was, you know, I mean, I’m not going to suggest that it wasn’t without its problems. I mean, prisoners are prisoners and they got up to things sometimes that they shouldn’t have got up to and we had to take them off. But do you know, I used to meet regularly with the listeners in Barlinnie. I had a listener coordinator but I used to go and meet with them maybe once a month, just to talk through problems. And you know, we had got to a stage with the Barlinnie ones where they were telling us if some of the other listeners were doing things that they shouldn’t have been doing, you know. Which I thought was a great step forward.

HR: So John’s a great example of someone with high levels of scepticism, as he mentions, and he’s always wanted to see something used that’s evidence based, which is a continual thing, I think, across the board, especially when it comes to things like funding and so on. Have you had experience of working with people from troubled backgrounds? Or those who have been in prison? And if so, does your approach differ?

AS: Well, not necessarily, I suppose. I can hear John’s scepticism that you say. And actually, yes, I can come up against people needing evidence all the time in different posts that I’ve been in the past. So there’s a lot of work around how do we find the evidence that people need in order to prove that what we know that arts therapists are really effective, and working with trauma and people that have struggled with long term mental health conditions. And so we have to find creative ways, I suppose to meet that. But I have worked with people who have come out of prison. And actually, I’ve never worked with anybody who has been unwilling to be in the room, I think that would be a different experience, if we were at work, and I know have colleagues who work in prisons and schools, when perhaps the person in front of them isn’t, is feeling quite reluctant to be there. I think that takes a certain approach, and maybe a lot of work to get to the point where people are engaging. But the generally I’ve worked with people who are wanting to be there, I suppose I meet the person where they’re at. So it depends what they want and what they need and and what they bring. And occasionally, I have quite a non-directive approach generally. So it’s like a dynamic kind of approach where I will step back a little bit and give space to the client and see what they’re drawn to and what comes up for them and respond as needed. But sometimes that can feel threatening and frightening. And so sometimes people need a bit more guidance and some edges to move within. So it might be that they need theme to work with. And I will try and find that theme from them. So work with what’s in within them rather than just plucking something out the air and it coming from me. So it might be that we talk first and we get to something and then we work with you.

HR: Yeah, no, definitely Yeah, I guess it’s case by case, isn’t it? It’s person by person. John talks about a sense of achievement, and that people get a felt from creative activities. And it was it was very passionate about that as well. I think it was like a revelation that these people took part in and shame, guilt feelings of worthlessness and some of the things you experience in these circumstances, and subsequently, your self esteem is completely lowered. How do you feel that art helps build that back up again?

AS: People you’re right will come through the door, having been through the system often, and we don’t have a lot of long term processes for people to work with. Often, when you go see the doctor, you might be for six sessions counselling, or you might get 12 or 16. But very often, it’s short term or time limited intervention, psychological interventions that are offered. So it can be hard to work with trauma, complex trauma, or it can take 16 sessions to get to a place where people feel safe enough to start talking about trauma, or distress, deep distress, where they’ve never been able to share things, it can, it can take a long time. So to be able to offer more long term interventions is really key, I think, for some people, and in and then once that is in place, and people can start to feel safe and understood, and they can start to feel that somebody isn’t judging them, and that they can talk about fear and distress and share, like you said, and all sorts of guilt, that is something that they’ve been holding on to for most of their life, then once they can do that, and they can start finding ways to express that in different bonds, whether it be through words, or poetry, or through movement, and, and that making them it can, it can lift so much pressure, so much deep shame that can make living their lives easier. That can mean that they don’t feel as burdened and as heavy in daily life. Yeah. I mean, I’ve had people say that they feel like a different person, that they’ve been able to work through things that they never felt they could, and that they start to have a different relationship with themselves, that they realise things weren’t their fault. When they they felt that it was or they start to understand themselves differently that things when they were a child, perhaps when they were brought up in certain ways, things that happened to them, they start to understand how that’s impacted them as adults and what they’re doing, how they’re living their lives, the behaviours that they have, or the thinking that their ways of thinking that have that it’s attached to maybe neglect or abuse, that they find a way of making sense of something that they didn’t understand before. That means that they can then let go of, of certain ways of thinking or behaving. Sometimes they’ve cut off so much in themselves, because there was some pride in the feeling that there that distress, that they didn’t feel anything, then they will living life in a kind of known state. But what can allow them to start feeling things safely. Yeah, no,

HR: Definitely. And that’s a phenomenal thing. I mean, when you talk about evidence based it’s I know that we have to kind of go back when we’re assessing things and you have to report back in terms of those things. But it’s sometimes it’s just like trying to convey the sheer joy or breakthrough that someone’s had just from doing an activity like that, which can at times be a bit difficult. I want to move on to our last testimony and it’s Alina, born in 1964 and grew up in Pakistan, moved to the capital city of Islamabad when she was 12 and experienced a lot of political instability within the country around the 70s and 80s and then moved to the UK at 26 years old. Alina enjoyed arts and science when at school and went on to study medicine and through work as Multicultural Health Facilitator, Greater Glasgow Health Board gradually became more involved in the arts and would look at the sensitive and cultural needs of ethnic minorities and suggested things like art exhibitions that incorporated the experience and backgrounds of these communities.

[CLIP] ALINA [Laura Interviewing]

LM: Do you think that people see the benefits more in a health setting more now than in the ‘90s when you were first working on projects?

AM: Yes, I definitely think so. I think at that time, I mean, even as a medically trained doctor, for me, I would follow more of the social model of health and during health promotion as well, for me it was health, like a lot of doctors, or health professionals, follow, that health is the state of physical, mental and emotional and social wellbeing. But for me, it was also following one of the definitions from one of the health promotion specialists. It was not just the state of physical, mental, emotional, social wellbeing but also enabling a person to fulfil their creative potential.

So every one of us has some form of creativity. Now I’m not talking necessarily that every one of us becomes a virtuoso violin player or pianist, but I’m taking about creativity which allows them to express themselves, their feelings, emotions. It could be anything from dance to singing to drawing, painting, so to enable that, and I found that as the years have gone on, a lot has happened in the context of Scotland, in Glasgow as well, and the recognition has been made, the impact of arts, whether it’s on the social wellbeing of people who are living in deprived areas, especially children. One of the projects is the Sistema project, which is the Big Noise in the south side of Glasgow which was influenced through all the inspiration and influence from the Venezuelan model where they had this project where classical music was taught, as in a group to children from deprived areas.

So in this model, again the children come together as a group, they perform together, they practise together, they perform together, so it’s not just one child having lessons once a week, the whole group dynamics and also getting training in classical music, which gives you the foundation, and there’s so much study happens which supports that. In terms of music, it helps them to focus better, it gives them more discipline and they perform well in school in terms of their studies. 

Now not everyone will be getting top grades, I’m just saying that it’s about improving the academic ability they already have with music and also importantly the number of times they get that exposure per week. So like Big Noise, they go three evenings a week, and that’s crucial, you know? And also, its impact on the antisocial behaviour that a lot of times teenagers have.

So, yes, I’ve seen over the years projects like this and then there’s a lot happening in the NHS and now when you go into the hospitals you will see different exhibitions coming from community, from projects like Project Ability being exhibited in the hospitals and also nearly three years ago, my mother was actually not well in hospital and she was in the elderly care unit at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, and in there every ward they had one big waiting room, but it was set up next to a kitchen and it was set up more like a social gathering room, so there would be tables and chairs. But they also had once a week an artist who would come and do sessions with the patients, so whoever was interested could come and join the session, they could do drawing or anything that…and of course there were a couple of them who were running the workshop and they would work with them and these women were elderly but they were involved, they enjoyed it and some of them they have to realise are in this unit in terms of elderly for more than two weeks at a time.

So all of that, they looked forward to that session, so there are practical examples now that the importance of art in terms of patients’ rehabilitation is much more recognised now. Yes, I would say that it’s been heartening to see that. Of course, there’s a lot more which can be done. There’s always funding cutbacks with the recession and all of that, and the COVID-19 pandemic has again dented all these initiatives because now there are so many cutbacks. And of course, then a lot of activities have gone on Zoom and other such social apps so that people…I mean, I work with the UK Asian Film Festival, so we have been having our film club monthly meeting via Zoom with the group because we watch a film or two every month and then we all come to discuss and review it. And the same way there are other activities like South Asians have what is called mushaira, poetry reading gatherings…

So I’ve seen world over poetry reading gatherings have been happening via Zoom. In some ways, this hadn’t happened before but now certainly events which used to be happening live and sometimes they would be streamed via Facebook are now being streamed globally. Last month, the first global Urdu mushaira from India and again because of the Zoom facility I could watch it while it was happening.

So I think during this COVID we have learned to use technology in a way which we didn’t use before, but I also feel people are still very isolated and that isolation, even with the technology, it doesn’t take away that aspect. People still want to meet in person in terms of going to these events.

HR: Now Alina managed to combine both her loves of arts and medicine, but she also had the means to introduce and work with that within communities of ethnic minorities, and language and communication is a huge barrier at times when it comes to mental health. How have you seen arts break down that barrier?

AS: Well, I suppose we’re lucky to have another medium. So it’s not just language and kind of communication, we have all a whole host of other mediums at our disposal in which, you know, people can express and communicate. So that actually language sometimes isn’t needed. As much, or at all, there’s so much that can be said through interacting with materials that that one can. And it’s universal, isn’t it and materials. So in order no matter what language people speaking, and culture that we brought up in, actually they can, they can find a way to express something, you know, whether it be, you know, using paints and paper, or clay from the earth or a stick, and natural fan materials, there’s so many ways in which we can express and explore ourselves and communicate that to somebody else. Beyond language. So I think we’re really lucky that we can have that connection with people that we can interact with them. It’s very relational. So, you know, when somebody is doing something, and they look at us, we can show them in that look, and in that way of using the art materials that, that where we understand what’s being said, and we don’t need language to make that connection with somebody.

HR: Yeah, definitely. It’s such a beautifully rich, cultural community that we have in many areas. And I suppose, accessibility as well, some people, it’s, you know, visually impaired, hearing it and hearing impaired, there’s so many different aspects, neurodiversity, which I think people often forget, as well. And I suppose when you add those layers on top of your if you do experience things like trauma, or you’re having problems with mental health, then it’s enough to battle through that instead of actually adding that extra layer. And in terms of communication as well. Yes, yeah. I mean, we have to talk about the pandemic, it’s something that is it’s changed things immeasurably. And she mentioned the pandemic and how we’ve used technology more effectively, in some cases. I do understand on the flip side, we’ve talked about sensory there, and the importance of having those tangible things and being in person was someone and touching things and making things. But how have you perhaps use technology? And do you see the difference between using technology and being in person with individuals and groups?

AS: Yeah, I mean, like you like everybody, we all had to go online, in 2020. And we were able to do that it took a little bit of time, but we were able to do off of that, and find our way. With it, it didn’t feel immediately obvious, because we’re using flight to see such kind of sensory materials. But we definitely went online with all one individual clients and groups, and found a way of working and learned a lot. So yeah, learning how to create healthy boundaries, when you know, we were usually in control of those boundaries in the therapy room, actually, then having to hand that control over to clients and, and nurture those kind of boundaries with them so that they could create as a private space for themselves within their own home that they felt was safe enough. And that was quite hard. In some, in some cases, yeah, we would find ways of sharing our work. So where people had made out where they would be taking photos and sending them through email, and then we will be sharing the screen and having multiple images upon the screen in groups. And just really quickly learning how to be able to find a connection with the making and the art work and be able to see well enough. Sometimes I worked on the telephone because people were triggered by the screen if they’ve been taught their trauma. So that was another way of working without materials and that syrupy context that I hadn’t had to before. And so we were finding ways and means of doing it. And it might be that they would send me an image as well. And I would have it on the screen while we were on the telephone. And it would just have to work with what we were there and meet that need. It does feel to me personally, that it’s hard to replicate what you have in the room in person with people, you do your best and you manage to get a pretty good version. But I don’t think anything compares to being physically present. When you’re actually witnessing the art making in person. You can hear every sound and you can see things in a way that screen kind of can reduce the impact and block off some of those experiences. We’re not actually a whole person had a whole body experience relationship. And I think that’s really important. So I’ve been really grateful to get back to in person work recently, where we’re having those full body experiences where we can be in prayer in the presence of another. 

HR: Yeah, I want to ask one more question. And it’s a personal one for you as a person, what impact does art have on your well being?

AS: I suppose it’s a big part of me, you know, it feels like it’s a part of me a really big part of me from childhood. And I don’t think I would be the same person without it. So I do write and make art, I like painting. It’s a part of me that I feel when I’m making art he can get in touch with things that is difficult to get in touch with in other ways. So I might not be able to verbalise something. But I can feel something when I’m kind of painting. And it’s like a relationship with myself. We suppose it’s like a conversation I’m having through the the act of being involved in the Art Media and I like paint that can discover things I can discover things in that process that I probably wouldn’t get to in other ways. Playing again, like I said earlier, just playing. It feels essential. It feels it feels valuable, I cherish it, and feels a very precious part of myself.


Donna’s extremely honest testimony highlights one of the many traumas that can subsequently impact mental health significantly, but her use of medication  combined with the arts, in this case poetry and journalling will no doubt give people listening some means to consider when it comes to their own experiences. The growth she could see when she looked back at her writing and that self-reflection was a tool in itself. As Andrea says, this covers countless areas from physical sensory art such as paint, clay right through to animation. As she says, seeing these things first hand and the impact that they can have on mental health by being used to express inner feelings can create remarkable shifts. 

That reminder of seeing things first hand is important when it comes to John’s recount and how this removed his scepticism. This is a common feeling when it comes to the arts and at no fault of an individual. It may be their social circles, education, family setting, or it can even be a demand to see more evidence-based results as John touches on. So it is all the more important for sceptics like John to have their stories heard to help shift opinion as it may encourage more investment. 

Alina’s work with communities and the discussions around language barriers is something that in a predominantly English-speaking country we can forget, but that can extend to BSL interpretation and more. It’s not just the conventional spoke language. But as Andrea says, we are lucky to have the arts as another mediums at our disposal. Expression and communication can be done through the arts without even the need of language and is entirely universal by creating a vibrant space for social connection. This makes a powerful contribution to mental health without perhaps the need for words. 


This podcast has been presented, produced and edited by me Halina Rifai  for the Mental Health Foundation with music by Lucy Parnell, the reclaiming our heritage project is funded by a number of donors including an “Our Heritage” grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.