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Mental Health - Art Works!
by Karen Adler, Transpersonal Art Therapist

ATH Asst. Editor of Arts & Art Therapy



Mental Health - Art Works!, an exhibition at Gosford Regional Gallery, is in its thirteenth year. The exhibition consists of paintings, sculpture, drawings, ceramics and photography by people in the Central Coast community whose lives have been affected by mental illness. This includes family and carers of people with a mental illness. An initiative of the Central Coast Mental Health Service, Central Coast Local Health District, to coincide with Mental Health Month, the exhibition has won several awards and has received recognition at local, State and National levels.

Mental Health Month NSW is part of a national mental health promotion campaign held in October each year. In NSW, it is funded by the NSW Ministry of Health and organised by the Mental Health Association NSW. It aims to promote mental health and wellbeing among the population of NSW and increase mental health literacy.

Jenice Alliston is the Mental Health Promotion Coordinator and has been involved in orgainising the exhibition since its inception. She states with pride that Mental Health - Art Works! is now firmly established as an annual event recognised and anticipated by not only mental health consumers and their carers but also by the community and local artists. Jenice is delighted that the exhibition has broached that divide between art done purely as therapy and self-expression and is now viewed as being part of the local art scene. She mentions that several participants have used the exhibition as a safe and nurturing arena in which to display their works and have then gone on to study art and develop their skills.

I first came across Mental Health - Art Works! on a chance visit to Gosford Art Gallery and was deeply pleased that an exhibition linking art with mental health had been going for ten years. Trish Maastricht, an artist and consumer who has been involved in orgainising the exhibition since its beginning, told me that one of the loveliest things she had seen over the ten years was not only the growth in confidence and self-esteem of the participants but the increased understanding and destigmatisation of mental illness among the community at large.

Destigmatisation and understanding decrease the sense of shame that adds to the burden of many people who experience a mental illness. Many forms of mental illness used to be automatically accompanied by social exclusion. Being able to shift societal thinking from ‘mental illness as weakness’ to ‘you consult a doctor for physical problems, why not for mental/emotional ones?’ is a big shift but a necessary one. With statistics that state that 1 in 5 Australians will experience mental illness at some stage throughout their lives and that mental illness is often a reason for considering suicide and that suicide is the leading cause of death in Australia for men under 44 and women under 34, it makes profound sense for all of us to be informed and educated about mental illness.

The artists who exhibit in the Mental Health - Art Works! exhibition show an incredible degree of courage in speaking about their mental illness and how it impacts upon their lives and the lives of those close to them. To draw or paint or sculpt how schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder or PTSD feels, how it looks from the inside, gives the viewer a window into worlds that most of us can only imagine.

Fifteen hundred people visited the exhibition in 2011. That’s fifteen hundred people who’ve expanded their minds sufficiently to view life from another perspective. And that’s the beauty of art - its ability to transform the internal, invisible world into something external, visible, tangible and therefore more manageable, more easily understood. From the consumer’s perspective, this act of art-making often holds the key to enhanced pride, self-esteem, self-awareness. These keys can open the doors to healing, an enhanced sense of self, as being more than one’s illness.

Laura Waldron won the Young People’s Award for her painting entitled Pride. Laura’s artist’s statement accompanying the painting was simple but powerful. “I chose giraffes as the theme for my artwork for several reasons. Giraffes naturally hold their heads high and people with mental illness should be able to do the same, without judgement or self doubt. All giraffes are unique and everyone's uniqueness should be embraced.”

This sense of regained pride, of being able to hold one’s head high, of not being defined solely by her mental illness was evident in the way that Laura spoke. As both an art therapist and as one who has undergone my own trials and tribulations with depression and anxiety, it made my heart glad to hear Laura speak so simply and eloquently about her experience.

In an article in which journalist, Andrew Hamilton, likens the societal response to suicide to that of leprosy, he speaks of a leper colony in Thailand he had visited. The nuns in charge had placed their computers and sewing machines where the lepers were, so that anyone who wanted to use them had to enter this section. “In this place,” he writes, “visibility dispelled fears and made for shared laughter.”

This, I believe, is the multi-faceted beauty and value of Mental Health - Art Works! Education is at the heart of this exhibition - the education and learning of the artists about themselves and their gifts, their own inner resources plus education of the general public about mental illness, being able to separate myth from reality, to bring light into the darkness. Art exhibitions such as this can operate as an inclusionary event, banishing shame and negating social exclusion - and everyone wins from this generous and courageous sharing of experience.


Copyright: Karen Adler, 2012



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About the Author

Karen Adler, ATH Asst. Editor of Arts & Art Therapy, is a Transpersonal Art Therapist, an artist, writer and researcher. She is a firm believer in the inherent healing qualities of the Arts. She has run art therapy workshops for the treatment of drug and alcohol addiction, self-harming behaviour, eating disorders, for post-flood and cyclone trauma and for people seeking to bring about positive change in their lives. Karen also uses Art Therapy to help in the resolution of her own life difficulties and is continually surprised by the insight it brings. 
Contact Karen at karenadler222@gmail.com or karenadler@allthingshealing.com.








Hamilton, Andrew. Suicide is the new leprosy, May 16, 2012, http://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article.aspx?aeid=31395




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