Sunday, 10 October 2021

#WorldMentalHealthDay - or - Aus her Krankheit eine Waffe machen

To celebrate World Mental Health Day and the rich lives of people affected by the stresses and anxieties of being alive in the here and now, I’m chuffed to bits to have a some brief accounts of the life experiences of four of the north west regional champions of the Lived Experience Network (LENS) who are a critical part of the Culture, Health & Wellbeing Alliance. So over the next four weeks, there’ll be a blog with each of the contributors telling something of their story.

The work that each of these artists pursue reflects a myriad of lived experiences linking mind and body and care - and much more - so no binary divisions here - just beautiful and complicated thinking about what it is to be human, with all our differences and similarities. My biggest thanks to Sue Flowers, Shanali Perera, Ruth Flanagan and Danielle Chappell Aspinwall who are pictured below.

This first posting is by Sue who is a driving force behind Green Close, an artist-led organisation located in the village of Melling in rural North Lancashire. You can find out more about her work and Green Close HERE. Both images of the 
Embroidered Cardigan and and the writing below are copyright of Sue Flowers 2021.

. . . 

My Injury by Sue Flowers 

Lived experience is such a strange term, especially because all of our experiences are lived in some way or another. But for those of us involved in LENs (the Lived Experience Network) it has a very specific meaning –referring to our experiences of illness, healthcare and often some fairly harsh realities of facing complex conditions and how these are managed.

Another thing that unites us is our belief that the arts can play a significant role in enabling better health, better healthcare systems and inspiring hope for individuals when they most need it. I think all of us involved in the network truly believe in the power of the arts to help and heal and we also understand that they can provide a much-needed portal to giving voice to the unheard (too often harrowing) stories of individuals as patients caught up in a healthcare system that has lost its way in focussing in on truly person-centred care.

My passion for the arts came as a child and I have spent my life working creatively, using the visual arts as a form of empowerment and understanding for others. However my passion for using the arts to affect positive social change within the mental healthcare system didn’t come until much later, when I witnessed how broken the system really was.

I have two close relatives with bipolar disorder, one aged 83 and the other 26: and having first experienced a relative with psychosis when I was just 23 I felt pretty well versed in what to expect when the younger one first became unwell. The problem was it wasn’t the actual mania of the illness that damaged his sense of self it was the way he was ‘treated’ and sadly abused by the services that were meant to protect and care for him. I witnessed him being held in seclusion unit for 15 days, not being allowed to shower or clean his teeth, and unfortunately I witnessed him being put into a headlock and held face down by members of staff when he had done nothing more than walk towards a closed door. 

I understand that people in altered states of reality can become aggressive and violent – but in this instance – there was an appalling abuse of power on a vulnerable young man who was compliant. At that point my heart broke. I wanted to do everything in my power to affect positive change and use my skills as an artist to help people see and understand some of the difficulties people with mental health conditions and their families face.

So, I became a part-time peer supporter on a mental health research study led by experts from Lancaster University REACT - the Relatives Education & Coping Toolkit. I was shocked to discover that the trauma we had faced as a family ran the length and breadth of the country as I worked to support others in navigating a confusing, underfunded system – where people are left until crisis point before any action is taken. Reading and responding to the individual traumas, heartbreak and collective suffering I vowed to try and find a way to make a difference.
I knew that when I worked creatively with groups I tried to facilitate platforms of equality, where every individual and every idea mattered; where difference was positive and so – called ‘failure’ was the absolute gift of knowing where to go next.

All of this was second nature to me as a visual artist and so I have chosen to take a pathway that wears my ‘lived experience’ on my sleeve – I am delivering creative mental wellbeing programmes and talk openly about our experiences of mental health and the systems that damaged us. I understand that the complexity of some emotions cannot be put into words and that sometimes other modes of expression are much more useful.

And, I have helped myself to heal through my own making and creating of artworks that have helped me process difficulties and I hope in some way they may also try to affect some new understanding.

. . . 

My Injury

My injury is not on the outside
stitches, swabs and bandages 
are not necessary
and surgeons cannot help me.

My injury is not on the outside
I carry my pain within me
no surgeon, operation or plaster
can fix it - it dwells within me.

My injury is not on the outside
it lingers like the memory of an unwanted dream.
Instead, blood that may have spilt across the floor, 
pumps around my veins keeping my injury alive.

My injury is not on the outside, unlike a carbuncle
I can’t have it removed or cut out of me.
I’d be happy to bear the pain and carry a scar
but impossibility comes with this.

My injury is not on the outside
I want to banish it – to set it free.
People say time is a healer; but guilt gnaws and anxiety craves
And so I uncover my injury – it is a part of me.

Thank you for sharing this with us Sue.

. . . 

A Little Light Reading
What books am I reading at the moment that link to mental health? Well, in truth don’t all books have some affect or impact on our emotional and mental wellbeing? Aren’t they nourishment for the soul - pure and simple? I know that through this last 20 months or so - through my own illness and through covid - I have devoured more books than I thought feasibly possible! I listened to a podcast by the writer Jenn Ashworth recently, where she describes the act of writing like breathing out, and that is inevitable nourished by reading itself - which is the breathing inI like this a lot.

She’s one of the authors of 17 short stories in a book edited by Dan Coxton which ploughs all its royalties/fees to the charity, Together for Mental Wellbeing. Out of the Darkness is a great collection of horror, dark fantasy, uncanny and the strange. The book is threaded with, and influenced by, the experiences of the authors and published by Unsung Stories, it ‘harnesses the power of fiction to explore and explain the darkest moments in our lives.’

The other book I’m ploughing through again (and it is a challenging read) is the brilliant SPK Aus her Krankheit eine Waffe machen. Translated as Turn Illness into a Weapon, it is a compelling treatise and account of the Socialist Patients Collective (SPK) in Heidelberg published in 1973 and the still-relevant account of the collective voices and action begins, what described at the time as the ‘anti-psychiatry’ movement. It is a brilliant critique of the medical model of mental health. The extraordinary preface is by John-Paul Sartre. 

One online reviewer (Durakov) succinctly captures something of the books narrative: 

"Instead of helping the ever-increasing body of the ill, capital and its defenders only seeks to make them exploitable bodies again, and it does so by essentially holding them hostage: the ill cannot seek the means of healing that fit their needs and desires, but are forced to travel through prescribed pathways and means defined by the authorities. If they do not do so, they are free to starve or die."

While dominant figures like R.D Laing - from English-speaking countries - dominated the late 60’s rethinking of mental difference, in Germany (SPK) and Italy (
Franco Basaglia) other radical voices were blossoming. Today, and perhaps not as divisive as those free-radicals, there are still passionate voices in this insane world, and at the head of the pack in the UK has to be the psychologist Richard Bentall, who looks to the reasons behind distress and ill-health. Of course, I return to Mark Fisher again and again and again.

Free Arts, Culture and Mental Health Module

For anyone interested in finding out about arts and mental health, there is a great free online module from the GM iTHRIVE project, which you can find more about on Dr Kat Taylor’s blog HERE. Below is a brief introduction to what it’s all about.

‘The new Arts, Culture and  Mental Health module introduces learners to the value of arts and culture for mental health. The module takes around 30 minutes to complete and demonstrates how the arts and creative interventions can be viable options for mental health service provision, shares key resources to raise awareness of the evidence and what options are available, and provides activities and ideas for how to incorporate arts and culture into every day practice. With interactive sections, videos and lessons from how we spent our time during the pandemic, the module also supports understanding of the broader applications of the arts and culture in public health.’

The always extraordinary arthur+martha launch A Book of Ours at Manchester Cathedral this week. A medieval-style, illuminated manuscript that has been written, illustrated and designed by a group of people who have experienced both homelessness and life at the margins of society. The book describes their lives, hopes and dreams over the course of a 2-year project. It's being launched on Thursday 14th October between 2:30 and 4:00. If it weren't for my fragile health, I'd be there in a jiffy. Find out more this rich and beautiful work HERE.

Here's what one participant said about this process:

“I’ve turned something nightmare-ish into something else. That experience of being homeless, which I’ve never talked about. A lot of my friends didn’t know it was happening. But now those memories have become part of something beautiful.”  


If you're kicking your heals and want to titter at your blogger ranting on about all manner of things arts n health back in May this year, here's a filmed conversation - quite odd at times - between me, Miss Death and Jay Katz! Katz, AKA = the Australian musician, archivist, social worker, film critic, radio announcer, and DJ, Jaimie Leonarder. Recorded while I was still on the MMU payroll, I wonder how different this would have sounded if recorded today. Jamie is the most radical social worker/activist I've ever met who worked created a bad alongside people living on the streets. Really quite a remarkable force of nature... 

 Hey Ho

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