Art and Madness: The Conversation We Should Be Having


In light of the Love Arts Leeds Festival which works to help the arts flourish in health and social care settings, Hannah Woodhead opens up about her own experiences of living with mental health issues, and reviews the exhibitions on show as part of the festival.

When I was fourteen years old, I was diagnosed with severe clinical depression. That’s not something I’ve always been able to tell other people, but after six years of psychiatrist appointments, nights in A&E, varying medications and countless therapy sessions with any number of medical professionals, I guess it’s time to tell the truth. Before my diagnosis, I knew next to nothing about mental illness, and why would I? Even now, it’s a topic most people are hesitant to approach, despite the fact that 1 in 4 people in UK will suffer some sort of mental health problem in a year, according to a recent survey by the Mental Health Foundation.

The link between creativity and madness tends to appear time and time again in popular culture.

The link between creativity and madness tends to appear time and time again in popular culture. Vincent Van Gogh and Jackson Pollock both displayed manic depressive traits, and in 2010 Stephen Fry spoke candidly about his own battle with Bipolar Disorder in ‘The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive’. However, these high profile examples do not give the full picture. Mental illness can affect anyone, anywhere; it is not discerning of age, race, gender or class. The assumption that every person with a certain mental illness will act in set way is born of naivety and innocence, but misses the mark nevertheless. The truth of the matter is, it affects us all in different ways, and in the past, there has been a tendency to only hear one voice. That is – if we hear anything at all.

But Leeds Love Art Festival, running throughout October, aims to change this. Working in partnership with the nationwide ‘Time to Change’ campaign, this city-wide project has been bringing the experiences of people with mental health problems into the open, through a series of art exhibitions, workshops, lectures, and performances. All of these events have been planned for the purpose of educating, whilst encouraging us to share our own experiences and thoughts. I was able to catch two very different exhibitions this week: the ‘Opening Doors’ exhibition at Old Broadcasting House, and ‘A War Within’ at the Royal Armouries.

After eventually finding the location of the Opening Doors exhibition (which wasn’t particularly clear on their website), I found myself quite disappointed. The exhibition details the experiences of staff and patients at High Royds Hospital, formerly known as ‘The West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum’. There were photographs taken by Tricia Thorpe from her exhibition ‘Demons to Rest’, and quotes from former patients and staff members. Unfortunately, the exhibition itself was quite small, consisting of a few large photographs and text boards, and three screens showing various multimedia pieces. Two of the screens were out of order when I visited, which is a shame, as they might have added substance to a rather sparse collection. However, the content itself touched upon important experiences of those that had both positive and negative memories of their time at High Royds. It was particularly interesting to contrast the thoughts of staff and patients, who saw the hospital from different sides of the system. The exhibition linked in nicely to the changing perception of mental health; High Royds was closed in 2003 and in the past ten years, there has been a shift in the treatment of mental illness. Much more is being done to provide therapy and community support rather than institutionalising patients. I thought the exhibition did ask questions of visitors about the way we, as a society, view the ‘mentally ill’.

In contrast, ‘A War Within’ focused largely on the experience on soldiers who were diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Composed by James Arthur Allen, it included photographs, interview excerpts and four short interview films. As you might imagine, the content of the exhibition was sometimes harrowing, as the ex-servicemen spoke candidly about what they had been through. Simon Buckden, a UN Peacekeeper, described his experiences in Bosnia, and how PTSD was not recognised by the army even as late as the 1990s, when he began to suffer. In another film Douglas Parker, a veteran of the D-Day Landings, spoke about how his experiences had shaped his whole life. There was also a film about Catterick Garrison, where the NHS is working with the military to provide mental health support to servicemen and women and their families. Many of those interviewed felt frustrated with the lack of support they received on discharge, either from the army or NHS. Allen also spoke to two non-servicemen with PTSD as a result of traumatic incidents in their lives, taking care to acknowledge that it is not a condition limited to those serving in the military. I was very impressed with the quality and content of this display, in particular the video content. As with Opening Doors, this exhibition also provided information on the Time to Change campaign.

The festival is actively encouraging conversation, and as a wider society, the ways we view and talk about mental illness are changing for the better.

So what can we take from these exhibitions, and the Love Art Festival in general? To quote Bob Dylan (who, incidentally, was also thought to have suffered depression), ‘The times, they are a-changing’. Through presenting these unheard voices in a new light, the festival is actively encouraging conversation, and as a wider society, the ways we view and talk about mental illness are changing for the better. It is becoming more and more socially acceptable to admit you need help; less of that ‘stiff upper lip’ we bang on about. From my own experience, I know how art therapy played a significant role in my treatment as a teenager; what I couldn’t say, I could create. Mental illness can’t be definitively cured by picking up a paintbrush, much in the way the conversation about it cannot end here, but I believe art can help us work towards a better understanding and acceptance. These exhibitions, and the Love Art Festival as a whole, are a welcome step in the right direction.

Hannah Woodhead

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