With 1 in 4 people now said to be affected by a mental health-related issue at some point in their life , the powerful connection between art, community and mental wellbeing has never been so important to harness. We talk to Chris Smith, artist and organiser of art group, Mindwell, to talk about why.
“In hindsight, I think, was I drawn to art inherently because I had a mental illness, or was the ability always there?” says Smith, reflecting on past experiences that led him to be sectioned, before using art as the vehicle to transform his life and career.
Expressing yourself through art
“I was always drawn to sketching and thought I was pretty good at it, but I did very badly at school and flunked out,” he explains.
After school, Smith returned both to art and education and became involved with art and mental health support group, Mindwell, as a volunteer whilst doing an exhibition and evening class at a small gallery in Tunbridge Wells whilst working towards a master’s degree.
“By the time I came back to further education I’d already been sectioned and hospitalised and I had a diagnosis (bipolar disorder), and I had done some art therapy whilst I was in hospital, but was very unwell,” he says. “But on coming back to education I found it quite easy and I was amazed how people would say, ‘Oh, you’re really good at art!’ My self-esteem was still very low at this point, but I was obviously able to communicate something through the art,” he recalls.
This theme of not necessarily being able to find the words to voice something you may be struggling with mentally (whether money or relationship-related, or something else) is something that affects a lot of us, but the beauty of art is that you are able to express yourself in a non-pressured way.
“I remember that I was scared talking to someone – because of the portrayal of it [mental health] in media. My lived experience, has been the complexity of articulating what a mental health issue is – the layers and different parts – when you’re really anxious and stumbling,” says Smith. “But making an image, it’s far more containing and expressive.”
The impact of Mindwell
After a chance meeting with Town & Country’s Foundation, Smith (a TCHG resident) was supported in his Art Psychotherapy studies (through his ongoing therapy during and for a period following the course) and later took the reins, leading the group to this day. In 2015, he won the Val Joy Award for ‘Volunteer of the Year’ for his work with the group.
He can get up to 20 people at Mindwell’s morning and afternoon sessions, with some members who have been coming for all the years the group has been running. “This may be the one thing someone gets out and does in the week, but it often becomes a regular thing over years.” If someone is particularly struggling, Smith says they are welcome to come to the morning art group (at Trinity Theatre), get something to eat and come back to the afternoon group (in Grosvenor & Hilbert Park), so they have a whole day filled with art.
The relationship between art and wellbeing can be a powerful one, but the added sense of community fostered by having a dedicated group to come together, sit down, chat (if you feel up to it) and do some art – whether picking up a pencil, felt tip, paintbrush or piece of plasticine – creates something special. This is why Mindwell continues to attract members old and new to sessions 11 years down the line after first being set up.
Smith recognises that when you’re feeling in a desperate and dark place, the last thing you want to do is go out, but Mindwell offers a relaxed setting where people can come and do what suits them and how they feel, with “no expectation” on abilities. “Someone in the group today said the reason I like it here is because you can be alright with not being alright,” he says.
“Sometimes you can almost feel like there’s this ‘us’ and ‘them’ when it comes to mental health, but we do this to ourselves. It starts in here [points to chest]. If you are looking at how you’re feeling and working on yourself, you’re doing something good in the world, and you don’t have to go out and tell anyone else.” This can have a wider effect in the community: “For people in your little corner, that has a ripple effect. I like to believe in that in every interaction we have.”
His career as an art therapist, although somewhat expected, is of great value to him and has changed his life (he also met his partner through his studies and is expecting his first child). The rest of the week is spent at a high-security psychiatric hospital and Kairos Community Trust drug and drink rehabilitation centre in London.
“Sometimes timelines are very obvious, but some are very here to there – like going from being sectioned under the Mental Health Act and being a patient on ward rounds to being on the staff. You think ‘How did I get here to there?’ as I remember being in hospital, keep going into detox, and wondering how everyone has a ‘normal’ life.”
Smith encourages people to pop into a session, whatever they may be struggling with: “One thing I’ve learnt is that the capacity to take care of yourself is within all of us – there’s always something difficult to face in life, but maintenance is key as the part of you that’s becoming unwell doesn’t want to do anything about it. You have to do the opposite of what your head is telling you, which is a such a difficult thing to do as it’s easier just to push it down and do things that keep it pushed down.”
2019 art show
Later this month, Mindwell’s annual exhibition will open at Trinity Theatre in Tunbridge Wells, showcasing a variety of works contributed by members of the group. “Everyone’s so different! But we’ve got some amazing artists.”
He adds: “It’s my passion to allow someone to get to know themselves and accept how different they are, and celebrate that and our exhibition is about celebrating diversity.” He concludes: “I try to put a lot of time into nurturing each person to find out who they are and their own style, and that’s at the core of what this group is about, because then people can support and see that in each other.”
New members are also always welcome to group sessions on Thursdays – 10.30am to 12.30pm at Trinity Theatre and/or 2.30pm to 4.30pm at the Hub in Grosvenor and Hilbert Park. If you, or someone you know, would like more information on Mindwell, contact Carol Francis via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or call 01892 501630.