Friday 28 November 2014

The fine art of raising esteem

Sufferers of mental illness are finding out their worth in theraputic art classes. And it's earning them money as well as self-confidence

Easel does it: Wayne Woodhead with one of his paintings
Easel does it: Wayne Woodhead with one of his paintings

Those experiencing mental illness often have to deal with feelings of isolation and low self-esteem. But, having a creative pastime to pour their talents and energy into is increasingly viewed as a form of therapy for this group of people.

A link has been made between creativity and mental illness, though scientists still debate exactly what causes the correlation.A 1993 study by Dr Kay Redfield Jamison, professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, concluded that the rate of depressive illness was 10-30 times higher among distinguished artists than in the general population.Researchers have looked into whether there is a biological reason for this higher rate of mental illness (i.e. a shared gene that causes both creativity and mental health issues).However, some believe that artistic people are more likely to be introspective and self-reflective as part of their creativity, and that depression may be a side-effect of this focus on one's feelings.Researchers are quick to caution that while it is a fascinating subject, the links between depression and creativity/genius shouldn't serve to glamorise depression.Famous artists who suffered from mental health problems include Vincent Van Gogh and Salvador Dali. Dali (right) experienced severe depression in later years as he mourned the loss of his wife.Canadian artist William Kurelek's work was heavily influenced by his psychological problems. He spent time in London's Maudsley Psychiatric Hospital in the 1950s where he produced what would become his best-known painting, The Maze.It depicts compartments of a skull, housing several psychological themes. One shows a man in a test tube being prodded and poked by a crowd of doctors. Kurelek's symptoms lessened as he grew older and his paintings conveyed a sense of calmness in comparison to his earlier works.

It's no surprise that art is one of the most popular forms of rehabilitation -- there is a historic connection between it and mental health conditions such as depression and bipolar disorder.

Wayne Woodhead joined An Tintean Art Group in Kiltimagh, Co Mayo, four years ago.

"My doctor referred me at the time," he says. "I was in a pretty bad way -- suffering from depression and an anxiety disorder. I'd never done painting before and, though I was keen to try it, I hadn't done any drawing since I was at school.

"But, it went quite well to start with and it's been getting better ever since."

When Wayne (52) looks back now on his early paintings, he can see how his state of mind was expressed in the symbolism.

"Sometimes no-one else could understand the meaning of the paintings, but it said a lot about how I was feeling."

His art group comes together twice a week to work on their individual projects. The class doesn't have a formal structure, but the students have tutors who come from an artistic background to give instruction.

"You get to know the other people in the class and we all support each other," says Wayne.

"I've benefited enormously from the art classes. When I first came, my confidence was at rock bottom but it's improved a lot since then. The amazing thing is that until we all came to the class, we didn't realise we could do what we do. People actually like to look at our paintings and buy them."

Personal growth

Wayne has had several artworks in exhibitions and has won prizes. But aside from his artistic achievements, he feels he has made personal growth through learning how to paint.

"When you're suffering from something that's causing anxiety, it helps to be able to sit down and work on a painting. It puts everything else out of your mind."

Consultant psychiatrist Dr Patricia Noone endorses the view that art can help people dealing with mental illness.

"A lot of anxiety in mental health is related to lack of confidence; of being fearful, having self doubts and analysing what's wrong," she says. "People can become very introspective. But, when they get involved in art, they forget about their symptoms and their problems, even if just for a short while.

"It's not a traditional form of art therapy where therapists look at what the person expresses in their art.

"This is more about the pleasure of working on and producing a piece of art. It doesn't have to be the best artwork -- though many people are talented -- it's really about the experience of painting.

"Over the years, it has led to mental health services becoming aware of the benefits and setting up their own art groups."

Seven years ago, the pharmaceutical company Lundbeck set up an initiative to promote art as a means of creative rehabilitation for people dealing with a mental illness.

The Art Against Stigma scheme now involves artists from centres all around Ireland who enter their pieces into competitions and exhibitions.

Lynn Gallagher, who also attends An Tintean Art Group, says exhibiting her work is a great confidence boost.

"We can put in one or two pieces and we work on them for a few months. The prestige of having a painting in an exhibition is the greatest thing; it's such an achievement.

"It also helps to break down the stigma that some people have about mental illness. There is a belief that if you have a mental illness, you aren't much good at anything. When people see our work, it helps them to understand that we have skills and that there's nothing wrong with us."

Lynn (50) is now working on a painting for an upcoming competition, which has the theme "Hope in a Changing World". Her artistic style is based around mysticism and she uses a lot of Celtic symbols.

She has come a long way since she started attending the class two years ago.

"When I first came here, I wouldn't spend five minutes in the centre. I had depression and anxiety and I would come into the centre and then want to leave after a short while. But, bit by bit, I'd spend more time here and then I really got into the art and couldn't wait to turn up to class."

Self-confidence

"I find it very relaxing and like the fact that I can express myself through painting. Often, I'll find that I'm in a different world when I'm working on something and can't believe that the time is up. When our tutors go on holiday, we all miss being able to come to class."

Tutors Fabrizio Simeoni and Stefania Corbelli are both artists who previously worked with mental health clients in the UK.

"When a client first starts with us, they find it difficult to pick up a pencil to sketch," says Fabrizio. "They usually say they'll be no good at it, but then they give it a try and realise that they can do something. They then have the belief that they're able to do things that they thought they couldn't."

Some past students have gone on to study at art college, but most find that it is more of a recreational pastime.

"Some people don't improve an awful lot in terms of the actual production of the work," says Stefania. "But they benefit both from the social and the personal point of view."

The artistic mind

A link has been made between creativity and mental illness, though scientists still debate exactly what causes the correlation.

A 1993 study by Dr Kay Redfield Jamison, professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, concluded that the rate of depressive illness was 10-30 times higher among distinguished artists than in the general population.

Researchers have looked into whether there is a biological reason for this higher rate of mental illness (i.e. a shared gene that causes both creativity and mental health issues).

However, some believe that artistic people are more likely to be introspective and self-reflective as part of their creativity, and that depression may be a side-effect of this focus on one's feelings.

Researchers are quick to caution that while it is a fascinating subject, the links between depression and creativity/genius shouldn't serve to glamorise depression.

Famous artists who suffered from mental health problems include Vincent Van Gogh and Salvador Dali.

Dali (right) experienced severe depression in later years as he mourned the loss of his wife.

Canadian artist William Kurelek's work was heavily influenced by his psychological problems.

He spent time in London's Maudsley Psychiatric Hospital in the 1950s where he produced what would become his best-known painting, The Maze.

It depicts compartments of a skull, housing several psychological themes.

One shows a man in a test tube being prodded and poked by a crowd of doctors.

Kurelek's symptoms lessened as he grew older and his paintings conveyed a sense of calmness in comparison to his earlier works.

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