On Thursday 27 March, I attended a conference on Psychosis and the Arts at Amnesty International. This event was organised by the International Society for Psychological and Social Approaches to Psychosis. There were a number of interesting presentations. Particularly stimulating was the talk which performance artist Bobby Baker gave us about how art has been a tool for her of self-reflection in a career spanning four decades. Art has also enabled Baker to communicate to others the distress which she has experienced through having a mental illness. She presented some of the diary drawings she created daily when she attended a therapeutic day centre. One drawing presented a mask which she felt herself to wear at that time, slipping away to expose a monstrous face beneath, which she felt she hid from others. Baker recalled her relief when she was reassured by her therapist that many patients felt they concealed a monstrous self. While Baker read many first-person accounts of mental illness, she asked ‘Where are the pictures?’ She believes that ‘psychosis is an incredibly creative act’ but that there are not enough artworks depicting madness. Baker then presented photos of herself engaged in various performances, ranging from standing in a kitchen and throwing a pear against a wall to relieve the tension that she felt, to making a life-sized edible version of her family, which visitors to the display were invited to eat, to driving around the streets of London strapped to the back of a truck yelling at people in the street through a megaphone to ‘Pull Yourselves Together’.
David Bell, a consultant psychiatrist in psychotherapy, explored in his presentation the impact of recent cultural and political change in the treatment of mental illness. He cautioned that antipsychotic medication is only useful as a short-term treatment for psychosis, and that this should not be a replacement for good care. Bell believes that it is a myth that there is community care, and in reality the mentally ill have no place to go for asylum now. He argued that mental health services need to provide containing, safe environments for disturbed patients, where there is emotional support given by staff. This environment needs to be structured, with staff providing creative activities. However, Bell noted that mental health services, by changing into Recovery Centres, are increasingly concerned with performance targets. He thinks that this ‘accelerating commodification of mental health suffering’, places unrealistic demands on the mentally ill to recover in a short time-frame, and results in both staff and patients feeling inadequate.
Bob Harris, a group analyst, gave a thought-provoking presentation of how art in mental health settings offers service-users an effective way of speaking to themselves, which can in itself be soothing. He observed how often people find it difficult to identify and express their feelings. Given that the brain is quite plastic, Harris believes that art can offer a way of repairing problems in the early years to some extent. He argued that this is particularly relevant to service-users, who often have experienced multiple and cumulative traumas, and may now be coping with the trauma of a psychiatric admission. Bell suggested how therapy is a way of seeking ordinary feelings and connections. He considers that art therapy can do a lot to help, by making symbolization possible of extreme mental states. While Bell refuses to celebrate the language or expression of psychosis, he does see it as presenting the opportunity for personal growth.
The day finished with a very interesting presentation by Meg Harris Williams, a visiting lecturer at the Tavistock, who reflected on the psychic transformations in the artist Louis Bourgeois’ sculpture of a monumental steel spider named Maman. Supported on eight slender legs, its body suspended high above the ground, the sculpture presents a nightmarish yet intriguing vision. Maman was made for the opening of Tate Modern in May 2000. Williams gave us interesting insights into how this sculpture captured the artist’s internal psychic world, as she explored her own ambivalent relationship with her mother, who was both a powerful, dominant and nurturing figure. This complicated inner world of the artist illustrated the struggles which people with psychosis often experience in managing the content of their inner worlds.