Recovery and arts as activism
Version of Record online: 22 NOV 2007
Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing
Volume 14, Issue 8, pages 768–770, December 2007
How to Cite
PEMBROKE, L. (2007), Recovery and arts as activism. Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing, 14: 768–770. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2850.2007.01175.x
- Issue online: 22 NOV 2007
- Version of Record online: 22 NOV 2007
I am going to be politically incorrect and unpopular by stating that I do not believe in the much hyped ‘recovery’. I have seen papers on the ‘12 core competencies of recovery’; it has been put in a box, commodified, branded and politically hijacked, as in recovery equals paid work, any work, 6 am toilet cleaning for minimum wage, it does not matter. Well, it does actually. I also do not think we can teach professionals recovery either. I do not want to see potential to ‘live as well as we’ can being put into yet another statutory box. I also do not want to see survivor groups and activists promoting solely work or education as the primary yardstick of recovery because they feel that is the only thing that really counts. Paid work and education are perfectly laudable aims, but if that is all that is promoted as recovery, then those who do not have the academic ability to go to university or simply do not wish to, or those who need to remain doing voluntary work, are at risk of feeling that their recovery might be slightly substandard.
Rather than pinning recovery done to a set list, I would prefer to see the focus as helping people to live as well as they can, however that is. Creativity and arts without doubt are linked to increased well-being, ability to communicate and sense of self-worth, but I do not want to see an evidence base developed to prove being creative is good for us. That would be like seeking an evidence base to show that having a bath is beneficial. One charity has produced a booklet on why having friends is good for our mental health, another has called exercise outside ‘ecotherapy’, and improving a person's immediate environment is now ‘nidotherapy’. The most obvious now has to be called therapy and has an evidence base. This is seen across the board in health care; things that should be obvious and used to be done like washing hands or feeding or talking to people now need to be a formal policy in order for it to happen. Practically everything is being called a therapy; at this rate breathing will become therapy. Altogether now – IN and OUT!
When activists recently turned up at a world psychiatric conference and did some street theatre with red clown noses, they were told by the drugs companies funding the conference that their noses were ‘dangerous’. Apparently, humour is not evidence based, so it is official – we now need an evidence base to smile! I do not think we can have specific outcome measures for things like creativity, humour, spirituality, hope or love.
When I used visual art as a teenager to express things I could not talk about, it was an outlet and no more. A useful one for me, but if that had been subject to formal evaluation, I would not have scored anything on any scale for outward improvement. What matters is what is going on within us, and I am not sure I want that neatly defined.
Sadly, our visual art has been pathologized as an academic exercise. My series of cartoons in Self-Harm: Perspectives from Personal Experience(Pembroke 1994) were subject to a mental state examination type of dissection by a feminist academic, so I would urge fellow survivors, if anyone wants to reproduce your work, be clear what they want to do with it. Art can also be positively used as a statement by others: the same cartoons were made into posters, and I was informed that residents of a high secure hospital attached these posters to their bedroom doors. This enabled them to state something they could not easily say verbally, and because it was art, it was acceptable.
Rather than turn creativity and arts into a therapy because it might aid recovery, I want to see easier and less ghettoized access to arts for mental health service users. Rather than classes specifically for service users with a therapist, let's help people to access classes or workshops anywhere, or bring in artists and teachers. We should have people from all backgrounds, not only those who are therapy-trained. At the same time, I do appreciate the value of survivor-only venues that may feel safer for some people, but then lets have more survivor artists doing the facilitation. We need people with good artistic and communication skills, but they do not have to be exclusively therapists.
Survivor arts projects can be a good starting point for some people, but it remains very hard for individuals to access funding to further their creative pursuits. Being on benefits makes it impossible to receive funds directly and funders can be unhelpful to those with no ‘name’. Being creative no doubt aids well-being, but I do not want to see this espoused and commodified like cognitive behavioural therapy. Let us allow people to take their own journey but help facilitate the access and funding. Arts as activism is something I passionately believe in. One of my initial contacts with survivor action was with a group called the London Alliance for Mental Health Action. We did street theatre as protest against the Schizophrenia A National Emergency posters in the 1980s. These posters had distorted black and white faces with red slogans, such as ‘He thinks he’s Jesus, you think he's killer, they hope he'll go away'.
So we stood in front of these posters and presented our street theatre consisting of a re-enactment of forced administration of medication, visual displays of side effects with a running commentary about the clinical terms for the effects and what they meant. I played the hypodermic-wielding doctor in a white coat and I am told I turned into a complete bastard as soon as I put that coat on (just as well I am a loony I guess). I have used many creative, humorous and dramatic devices to get serious points across in teaching and conference speaking. It helps people to remember the serious point accompanying it.
Here are a few examples. I devised a quiz with a friend whereby people had to choose A, B or C to a number of questions. The answers fell into three categories: pathological, common sense and completely barking. The point of the exercise was to illustrate that it is always worth looking for the common sense explanation of a person's behaviour. I have used a remote-controlled Dalek and Star Trek gadgets. They are universal cultural references and can be used humorously to break the ice – or can be used humorously before difficult points are made to *ahem*, soften the blow. Mental Health Media's (2002) CD-ROM Electric Apple is a great example of a survivor resource on weird and wonderful ways of coping with and managing distress. Clips can also be used as part of presentations. I used a clip of me dressed in a cyborg costume, ‘assimilating’ someone playing a psychiatrist as an example of a therapeutic intervention, to get people to consider interventions beyond the medical and psychological. It also made them laugh. In illustrating the ludicrousness of psychiatrists' claims that putting tomato ketchup on your arms was likely to prevent self-harm, I put this to a ‘scientific’ test (the scientific condition being of course the white coat). A volunteer kindly let me squirt ketchup on her arms and confirmed this would not help her manage her self-harm. So, the conclusion of the experiment was that ketchup belonged on chips.
A further example of strange treatments for self-harm which I illustrated while presenting was the idea of pouring water over someone's head, blowing a whistle and shouting ‘Stop, stop, you will not harm yourself!’ I blew the whistle, shouted the line and poured water over my head. But I felt I could only do this while wearing a Groucho Marks nose/glasses and moustache piece. People remember the reference because they remember the accompanying act. What they did not realize is that the water went right down my back and I had to walk around with wet knickers for the entire day. The things I do for activism . . .
Many survivors incorporate art as part of their activism to get a point across. From defacing drugs company posters or doing street theatre as protest, to ‘hearing voices’ trainers using role-play with people acting as voices, and self-harm trainers getting trainees to experience ‘close observation’ of each other. Creativity and arts can be used to great effect in training and education, and also makes the process that bit more colourful, enjoyable and memorable. Psychiatry, psychology and nursing are limited in how they account for human distress, and arts tell our own truths, not someone else's version or interpretation of our truths. Our words are rewritten in assessments but art is not so easily rewritten, and, we do not need an evidence base to do it (hooray for that). Medical and nursing schools are starting to incorporate the use of survivor arts in teaching as this encourages a different way of perceiving experience and through a different frame of reference. It can be a powerful tool to shift perception and reach people in a different way to academic papers and statistics.
When I produced the dance DVD and accompanying booklet, Dedication to the Seven: Hearing Voices in Dance (Pembroke 2005) this was not therapy for me, neither was it my recovery. It opened up another way of speaking about the voices I hear and see, to give them a physical ‘shape’ to convey to others. However, I have to face some of my demons in order to dance; there is a cost but enough benefit for me to do it. Taking a class is hard because my voices can make it difficult for me to hear the teacher. He worked out that for some reason I could not hear him so he would stand in front of me and touch my arm to get my attention. He was not a therapist; he worked this out simply because he had the ability to. Doing a class can tire me for an entire day because of the sheer mental effort involved in participating. Unlike some celebrities who cite their ‘need’ of their madness for their art, when I am acutely distressed it kills my creativity.
General activism, peer support, a few critical-thinking professionals and having a couple of passions in my life have been my survival (though I am not sure it would measure up to definitions of ‘recovery’). I was creative before I went mad, so reject the romantic notion of artistic genius and madness being intrinsically linked just as I reject simplistic notions of arts being yet another therapy like cognitive behavioural therapy. I am currently producing another dance film on the subject of ‘catatonia’, which will contrast my description alongside the clinical descriptions; the dance will attempt to show the turmoil beneath the stillness. A friend said to me, ‘How can you do a dance about catatonia when you don’t move?!' I suggested she think of a bird gliding across a lake, its upper body appears motionless, yet underneath we all know their little feet are paddling away like mad. That is what I hope to convey. I look forward to the day when we can have a debate at a psychiatrists' conference where everyone has to sing or dance their point because I think we all need to locate the creativity within us.
- Mental Health Media (2002) Electric Apple. CD-ROM. Mental Health Media.
- 1994) Self-Harm: Perspectives from Personal Experience. Survivors Speak Out, London (but is currently only available from Mind). (
- 2005) Dedication to the Seven: Hearing Voices in Dance. DVD and booklet. Mind Publications, London. (