Pin It
Dorothea Tanning, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, 1943
Dorothea Tanning (1910–2012), “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” (1943). Oil on canvas, 407 x 610 mmTate, DACS, © 2019

Spending time with art really helps my mental health on its darker days

Writer Ari Potter shares personal experiences about how art helps them to cope when it feels like nothing else can

It’s Friday afternoon. I have just sent a text that should be filed under ‘emotional admin’ after a recent disentanglement. I feel a confusing juxtaposition of restless and disengaged; my palms are sweaty and there’s a risk I might vomit. I soothe myself by remembering that in an hour or thereabouts, I can skip over Millenium Bridge to Tate Modern and lose myself in “Endgame”, the first painting in its current Dorothea Tanning exhibition.

The painting reminds me of a close friend – who, to me, is patience personified – and our chess games. I remember other recent visits to that same museum: Red Star Over Russia, Jenny Holzer, Christian Marclay’s The Clock, and I feel instantly calmer. This is a trick I’ve learnt over time. When it feels like nothing can help, art sometimes can. Working in a museum means that I need to only venture downstairs to instantly relax a little.

I spent a brief time of my early twenties on a mental health ward. Having previously only engaged with mental health services through a GP and occasional counselling, I found myself thrust into the core of the inpatient experience. I saw overstretched staff, had my mealtimes dictated, and was subject to the various therapeutic and rehabilitative treatments of the NHS.

Some of these treatments were mandatory, or at least, presented as though they were: medication, psychiatry appointments, psychology appointments. Others were offered instead as a choice, almost for their distraction rather than their therapeutic purpose. For me, more than anything else, the experience of being an inpatient was boring and so I opted to attend various occupational therapy sessions to break up the day. These included cooking therapy, music therapy, and, my favourite, art therapy.

While feeling the cartridge paper under my chalk-stained fingers, I reflected on how few opportunities there are as an adult to make art if it’s not your profession. The last time I had played with pastels was doing my GCSEs, and I had forgotten how meditative the process could be. I expressed this to the occupational therapist running the session and she remarked that she was pleased to see me enjoying it; the opportunity to draw a picture that would not be examined or displayed.

These sessions took place once a week, and I was lucky for even that opportunity. Art therapy is available through the NHS, but as is the case with many treatments, access to it will depend on the area and the decision of the clinical commissioning group (CCG) of a locality. Such decisions will be informed by both evidence of the effectiveness of a treatment, but also on resource and cost constraints. A National Institute for Health Research Health Technology Assessment study assessed art therapy to be ‘associated with positive effects’ from what they admit is ‘limited available evidence’, to me, an indicator that just as there is limited funding for art therapy itself, there is limited funding for research into its benefits.

“When it feels like nothing can help, art sometimes can” – Ari Potter

While Theresa May in her time as Prime Minister has placed emphasis on ‘parity of esteem’ between physical and mental health services, the Royal College of Psychiatrists has found that mental health trusts have lost funding when accounting for inflation. As a resource and time intensive type of therapy, the decision to fund art therapy may feel difficult to justify.

But, unlike, say, prescription medication, art therapy can be safely self-prescribed and self-administered. Upon discharge from the hospital, I found myself drugged to the eyeballs on antipsychotics with the side effect of acute restlessness. I could not be still, and it felt as though they had decided to take the energy of my racing mind and convert it to a fidgeting body. One of the few soothing activities I found was visiting art galleries: an interactive space where both body and mind could be engaged without feeling like an imposition.

I visited one particular AV installation curated by the Hayward Gallery, The Infinite Mix, on five occasions. I walked from room to room as my focus briefly shifted from my aching bones by a stream of short films. Some, such as  Ugo Rondinone’s THANX 4 NOTHING, were motivational – others, like Kahlil Joseph’s m.A.A.d. gave me joy through music. Some, like the closing 3D Nightlife were just visually spectacular. I enjoyed it because it was free, I could walk around (or lie down) and feel like the spectacle wasn’t me.

At a recent conference on storytelling, a speaker remarked that describing an exhibition as ‘a book on the wall’ is something of a slate – the core of this idea is that a museum or art gallery is not just an opportunity to educate but to take an audience outside of themselves. It is here that I believe the therapeutic potential for interacting with art comes from: walking around a gallery is an immersive experience that stimulates different senses. Having a space to interact outside of ‘real life’ and forget societal pressures helps to reduce anxiety and feel present – even mindful.

Galleries curated with this element of the experience in mind can be particularly restful. The Franz West exhibition at Tate Modern has been designed to encourage comfort and playfulness: there are rug-covered sofas, a library, and visitors are given the freedom to touch and interact with some of the works. On a more intellectual level, art exhibitions can be soothing because of the stories they tell. The trope of the 'tortured artist' can be comforting and relatable – the recent Modern Couples exhibition at the Barbican lends a perspective to the happenings in one’s own life, a reminder that however it may feel, one is rarely alone in one’s experience.

This perspective comes from a place of privilege, both in having access to NHS-funded art therapy and in living near galleries to visit. Those living outside of large cities usually don’t have the option to visit galleries easily, for therapeutic reasons or otherwise. The cost of seeing an exhibition can be prohibitive, as can the cost of travel to a free exhibition.

Furthermore, the idea of visiting a gallery to improve your mental wellbeing relies on being rich in time and in feeling welcome in those spaces, to begin with, a fact that sadly applies mostly to people with a certain level of privilege, including often higher education. Unless you have been consciously or unconsciously taught that these public spaces are for you, that you belong in them, you may never consider them as a source of comfort.

People who live in poverty or have had access to less education are more likely to experience mental health problems and less likely to visit an art gallery, even if the benefit to wellbeing could be the same. Access to the benefit relies on privilege, as with other traps of inequality. There has been a drive in recent years to make art more accessible and expand its reach beyond the white, well off, and educated, but while the majority of creators and curators are still of that background, I doubt whether art can be made truly accessible, and that’s a shame as it has the potential to help more people.

Art as a therapy may not work for everyone. But, in recent darker days, I have reached for a pen to draw out a feeling; it expels something, and that feels healthy and relieving in the moment.