“Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life,” are the words of celebrated art lothario, Pablo Picasso. The Spanish painter, sculptor, printmaker and ceramicist is regarded as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. He also suffered from clinical depression.

Art therapy and psychodrama are relatively new phenomena. Simply, by utilising conventions of art and drama we can successfully address emotional distress through work and movement. It is a very fluid and organic approach to mental health. Too often sufferers are driven and goaded to attend impersonal appointments with counsellors, and be propped up by a daily cocktail intake of drugs. It is not working, and simply, the NHS does have the resources to sustain the demand.

Consider the recent statistics obtained by medical publication, Pulse. Six out of ten children referred to a mental health service by their GP didn’t go on to receive treatment. Furthermore, self-harm was not an accepted criteria. Children had to be “actively suicidal” to qualify for treatment and research indicates that many cases still did not receive active care. This kind of evidence is both alarming and disturbing. Something is not working, and new measures need to be put into place to tackle issues of mental health in the younger generation. Starting first and foremost with education.

Ann Atkins and Rosie Ward have both developed their own interactive and creative immersive workshops for school children to help confront issues of teenage depression and self harm. It is a prime example of how powerful the creative arts can be in so many issues of major concern.

But the creative arts is not only a powerful mechanism for children trapped under the blanket of depression and anxiety; prisoners, locked in the confines of their feverish and anxious minds. There are also other members of society who are physically bound by a disability that need the creative arts to help with their own wellbeing and mindfulness.

Elinor Rowlands is a celebrated mental health specialist and director. She suffers from dysphixia and finds the mundane activities of everyday life very difficult. For her, film, theatre, art and poetry are a release. However, Elinor is critical of the way disabled people are represented in art. Disability is depicted as an ‘ailment that cannot be successful, attractive or normal’. The recently released movie, Me Before You is possibly the perfect example of this.

Confined to wheelchair since the age of nine, Emily Yates shares Rowlands sentiments. Emily is also disappointed in the depiction of disabled people in film, art and literature, namely because they are depicted as asexual.

Emily current works for Enhance the UK, a charity aiming to educate people of all ages about disability, and is also the figurehead for their #Undressingdisability campaign; a movement that aims to demonstrate to society that disabled people are sexual beings and do have sex.

For Emily, this starts with inclusive sexual education for disabled people. As the report from Women’s Aid suggests, disabled women are twice as more likely to be victims of gender based violence then their able-bodied counterparts. Emily calls this an ‘epidemic’, the first step needed to tackle this appalling statistic is that sexual education in schools needs to be inclusive.

Perhaps the most alarming statistics uncovered were of those attached to the criminal justice system. Marred by an exponential rise in violence, assault, self-harm and mental health problems, new Chief Inspector of Prisons, Peter Clarke, called the penal institution an “unacceptably violent and dangerous place” in his yearly report released Tuesday 19 June.

Adam Mac is a current lifer at HMP Wakefield and relies on the arts to help with his day-to-day depression and anxiety. He exposes how prisons are “harsh environments” where there is an aversion to showing any kind of vulnerability. “The arts is one way of showing that emotion without feeling vulnerable,” he says. This aversion to vulnerability is not necessarily confined to prison. In every facet of life there is a repugnance to remove the carefully constructed façade and expose our naked and blemished mental and physical selves.

Playback Theatre requires this kind of undressing of its audience. It is a unique and unconventional theatre practice, which encourages audience members to share stories, and these in turn are acted out. It is a very cathartic movement, and the stories that are shared can have a profound effect on the entire audience. Thus considering, should everyone be allowed a platform to share their story? Interestingly, in my conversations with three inmates, the details of their convictions were not discussed, and frankly I didn’t really want to know. While it may have been a cathartic release for them to share and offload, it certainly wouldn’t’ have been for me. I directed these queries towards Playback member, Lillie, who works with ex-offenders. She didn’t share my view, and it was interesting that she felt that it was “not the responsibility” of the teller as to how other people reacted to their stories.

The term ‘prisoner’ is a very metaphorical term, and although the immediate image is of an inmate in an orange overall there are so many other prisoners, silent prisoners who are amongst us in society. As an acute anxiety sufferer with a tendency for depression, I often regard the arts as a significant and powerful release from the boundaries of my mental state. Throughout the course of my interviews, I have encountered others who see the arts as an outlet and a way to overcome the difficulties of day-to-day activity.

Picasso, like many artists was bound down by a prison sentence. So many great artists are- Ludwig Beethoven, Edvard Munch, Silvia Plath, even Tracey Emin has admitted to being self destructive. Yet, art is also somehow a release, a ‘get out of jail card’ for those marred by the institution, the physical ailment or the dark mental cloud that hangs low.

We know that issues of mental health are on the rise. Children, now, more than ever identify with depression and anxiety. Disabled people are at a higher risk of abuse than their able bodied counterparts, and the prison system is tainted by violence, abuse, self-harm and significant mental health issues. Yet, there is a common thread evident, the arts is a successful way in tackling, addressing, assisting and helping people with these problems. The arts are effective in releasing negative energy for those curbed with a ‘prison’ status. Picasso is right, art does wash and cleanse the soul from the ‘dust of everyday life’; the interviewees are testament to this, as am I.



Watch On the Buses re-runs. My love for classic British comedy knows no bounds.
Listen Desert Island Discs. Lyn Barber’s episode is particularly brilliant.
Read Australian author Noel Coward. A Town Like Alice is a favourite.