Writing and recovery: creative writing as a response to mental ill health

 

“You don’t put yourself into what you write, you find yourself there.”
Alan Bennett

Mental illness, for so long regarded as secondary to physical health, is now being taken more seriously. Media stories about loneliness, anxiety and depression have highlighted increasing concerns about mental ill health, and the issue has also been rising up the political agenda.

In 2017, a survey by the Mental Health Foundation found that only a small minority of people (13%) reported living with high levels of good mental health, and nearly two-thirds of people said that they had experienced a mental health problem.

Prescribed medication is one response to mental health problems, and it’s been reported that the NHS is prescribing record numbers of antidepressants.  But while psychiatric drugs can be of real value to patients, especially those whose condition is very severe, the mental health charity Mind has suggested that alternatives, such as physical exercise, talking therapies and arts therapies, are often more beneficial.

Last month, a conference at the University of Glasgow explored ways in which creative writing is being used to respond to mental ill health, and discussed what makes writing interventions helpful for coping and recovery.

Voices of experience: coping and recovery through writing

“Making and consuming art lifts our spirits and keeps us sane”.
Grayson Perry

Several speakers at the Glasgow conference testified to the effectiveness of writing in dealing with mental ill health and in finding a way to recovery.

In 2012, James Withey experienced a set of circumstances which brought him close to taking his own life. In the darkness of his depression, James felt that he might never recover. But after spending time at Maytree, the UK’s first “sanctuary for the suicidal”, he found that writing about what he was going through offered an antidote to the lies being spun by his depression.

He started a blog, and when he posted a letter to himself, beginning “Dear You.” James found that writing the letter gave him space to express his feelings and to listen to himself.

Before long, readers of James’s blog were responding with their own “Dear You” letters. The word spread that the letters offered a different perspective on recovery, and in some instances, had prevented suicide.

Today, The Recovery Letters project is still going strong, with a website, one published book and another in the pipeline. James is realistic about the project:

The letters are not a cure for a chronic illness, but they do provide support in helping sufferers of depression accept where they are.”

Policy positions: the view from Wales

“If poetry and the arts do anything, they can fortify your inner life, your inwardness.”
Seamus Heaney

Another speaker at the conference was Frances Williams, a PhD candidate at Manchester Metropolitan University, where she is studying arts and health. In her presentation, Frances explored some of the policy frameworks and public discourse surrounding the field of therapeutic writing in Wales.

She highlighted a recent report, Creative Health, The Arts, Health and Well-being, which  makes a case for the healing power of the arts in many different healthcare and community contexts.  In this report, a creative writing tutor explained some of the ways in which writing can help people experiencing bereavement, including keeping a journal, writing unsent letters, describing personal belongings and resolving unfinished conversations:

“Writing can be a valuable means of self-help, with the page as a listening friend, available any time of the day or night, hearing whatever the writer wants to say. The results of this can be powerful, and include people being able to return to work and adjust more effectively after their loss, acquiring skills for their own self-care which will serve them through the rest of their life.”

Frances also noted that the battle of priorities between impact and value-for-money has driven advocates of arts therapy programmes to defend them in terms of cost effectiveness and social value.

A mapping project by the Arts Council of Wales has taken this to heart, producing in 2018 an audit of the principal arts and health activities currently taking place in Wales.

Writing to the rescue

“By writing, I rescue myself”
William Carlos Williams

The Glasgow University conference underlined the health-giving properties of creative activities and the potential for creative writing to support people suffering with mental ill health. There was no pretence that writing offers a quick-fix solution. As James Withey noted, “…writing is just one element in a toolkit of responses to mental ill health.”

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing fully supports this concept, and has recommended that policymakers recognise its importance:

“…the arts can make an invaluable contribution to a healthy and health-creating society. They offer a potential resource that should be embraced in health and social care systems which are under great pressure and in need of fresh thinking and cost-effective methods. Policy should work towards creative activity being part of all our lives.”


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A bleak future for UK arts funding?

5349310766_ea97e0ee88_bBy Stacey Dingwall

At the moment, it seems like hardly a week goes by without the announcement of cuts to funding for arts organisations across the country. In July 2014, it was announced that, due to changes in the way it distributes its funding, Arts Council England would be reducing the amount of annual funding it provides to the English National Opera by 29%. On top of this, 33 organisations were informed that their funding would be stopped altogether, and 670 that the amount they receive would be frozen for the time being.

Cuts across the regions

The picture is similar across the country. In October, it was revealed that Arts Council Wales’ 2015/16 budget would be reduced by £300,000 on the previous year. The Arts Council of Northern Ireland is facing an 11.2% reduction in its own budget for the year ahead. And in Scotland, more than half of the organisations, including the Scottish Youth Theatre, who applied to Creative Scotland for long-term funding at the end of 2014 had their bids turned down.

Reactions to these announcements have been widely negative, from the public, leading arts figures and the organisations themselves. Accepting a theatre award last week, the actor David Tennant argued that providing funding to the UK creative industries is an “investment” rather than an “expense”, and that “the arts bring in so much more money to this economy than they take out”.

This was backed up a couple of days later in a report published by the Warwick Commission, Enriching Britain: Culture, Creativity and Growth, after a year-long examination of the UK creative arts sector. According to the Commission, the sector represents 5% of the total UK economy, valued at £76.9 billion.

Despite this, the sector presently receives just 0.3% of public spend annually, a figure which many involved in the sector expect will only decrease; new analysis carried out for the London School of Economics has predicted that English local council spending on the arts could fall by as much as 33% over the next five years. In real terms, this would represents a fall in funding of £750 million between 2014 and 2019, making arts the fourth hardest hit service during that period, behind planning, transport and housing.

Unfair distribution?

Aside from the actual amount of funding provided to the arts, another key issue is its distribution across the regions. In October 2014, the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee published the report of its enquiry into the work of Arts Council England, which criticised the “clear funding imbalance” in favour of London in the Council’s distribution of grants and aid.

Many have argued that this has been an issue for some time; a 2013 report, Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital, argued that of the £320 million allocated by Arts Council England in 2012/13, £20 per capita went to London, with only £3.60 per head given to the rest of England.

Separate analysis of Arts Council England’s national investment plans for 2015-2018 by GPS Culture, Hard Facts to Swallow, placed the overall balance of investment from the Council’s grant-in-aid and lottery income streams over this period at 4.1:1 in London’s favour. According to this analysis, £689 million (43.4%) will be invested in the London arts scene, providing a per capita return of £81.87 per head of population (php); £900 million will be provided for arts in the rest of England, generating a per capita return of £19.80 php.

Things can only get….worse?

Should there be a change in government at the upcoming general election, it doesn’t look like this will improve the funding situation for the arts. In January this year, the Labour Party was criticised for ‘bragging’ that it wouldn’t reverse the arts funding cuts announced by the coalition government, should it gain office in May. Although she has criticised cuts to arts funding imposed by the current government in the past, the deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman indicated that as “this government has failed on living standards and failed on the deficit”, a future Labour Government would be unable to reverse all of their decisions made regarding cuts going forward, including on arts.

In the meantime, many UK arts organisations are turning to an alternative means of financing their projects: crowdfunding. The last few years have seen many filmmakers and musicians across the world turn to platforms such as Kickstarter to get their projects off the ground, and last year The Art Fund launched its own platform, Art Happens, to help UK museums and galleries raise money for creative projects. Through this, it is intended that British museums will be able to continue to present the innovative projects which they, and the entire UK arts sector, are globally renowned for.


This article was originally published on 3 March on the Idox Grantfinder expert blog.

We are Europe’s leading provider of grants and policy information and have been providing support to UK organisations since 1985.