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Art for good health's sake

Adults with mental health problems find a new arts course is good therapy and a focus for creativity, writes Jessica Werb.

Once a week, a group of 19 adults aged 21 to 55 come together in Edinburgh for an art and design course taught by established potter Ken Southall, jeweller Ann Little, artist Lisa Arnott and designer Anne Starsmere. Since January, these students have been creating their own portfolios of work, much of it striking in its originality and vision. By the end of the year, they will have gained an SQA certificate or a diploma and many of them will have enrolled in courses at art colleges across the country.

What sets these students apart from any other group of adults taking part in further education classes is that they are all wrestling with severe mental health problems, from depression and bipolar disorder to schizophrenia. None of them is able to work full-time and they are all on medication to cope with their illnesses. Nonetheless, they have all been given the opportunity to take part in an unusual, structured course that is challenging their creativity and engaging them in education and art - and they are doing so with remarkable success.

"We have very interesting work coming out of our students," says Anne Starsmere, the course leader. "What's exciting about it is the response we're getting from our students. Very often students can't make it because of their illness, but they come and ask if they can do some extra work to make it up. They have shown a great enthusiasm, and we're certainly very excited by the work they are doing."

This pilot project was started last December by Forth Sector, an organisation that creates training and employment opportunities for people with mental health problems, with funding from the Scottish Arts Council. Now it is hoping to receive further funding to make its art and design course a mainstay of the services it offers.

"Our students are recognising that they are creative and are learning how to work with that creativity," says Ms Starsmere, adding that there is a strong link between mental illness and creativity, citing Vincent van Gogh, Sylvia Plath and Allen Ginsberg as examples.

"A lot of our students say what they like about the course is that it is structured, with clear goals in sight for them to reach," she says.

Certainly Forth Sector's art instructors have been pleasantly surprised by the work and dedication shown by the students. Ann Little, who has never worked with people with mental health problems before, says that her own preconceptions of mental illness have been challenged by working with Forth Sector.

"I had no idea what to expect when I got on board," she admits. "I was slightly anxious about how it would go, but I found them all very welcoming and I have never felt uneasy working with them. I hadn't had any contact with people with mental health problems before and I was surprised at how creative they were and how easy they were to teach.

"A lot of these students could go on to do degree courses if they wanted to. Two or three of them are already at degree level."

She adds that she has learned as much from her students as they have from her, particularly about problem solving and how to approach tasks in a different way. "They bring in some great ideas. They didn't actually take a lot of teaching," she says.

While the course has been set up with specific goals and challenges, it has also been created in such a way as to take into account the problems that its students may be facing because of their mental health. It is run all year round to allow students time out when they feel ill and the teachers are there as part of a support network as well, sometimes visiting students in their homes.

"We are prepared to be there at crisis times and say to them we'll hold your place open for you to come back when you're ready," explains Ms Starsmere.

"They need that support to get their confidence back about engaging with society more fully. A lot of our students have been excluded from society because of their illness and all they need is some support.

"We certainly expect a number to either move on to further education through art college or to move into the arts industry in some way."

Not only is the course allowing students to express themselves creatively and gain some control over their own lives, but Ms Starsmere believes that it may also be helping them to cope with their illnesses as well.

"Research has shown that there are very definite benefits in art for people with mental health problems, and people do use it as a therapeutic tool," she points out.

Certainly, for a 52-year-old former hospital worker who is struggling with anxiety and depression, the course has given her a new lease of life. "Every aspect of it has been new to me," she says. "It has opened so many doors for me. I didn't realise there were all these opportunities, like print studios and summer art courses that I could take. If I hadn't taken this first step I wouldn't have known about what was out there.

"It's given me more confidence and has allowed me to do so much that I hadn't done before. It has helped my recovery too, by getting me to concentrate on something else for a while and just enjoy myself. Now I know about the delights of hosing down a screen print and getting covered in purple dye. I'm looking at the glass half-full now instead of half-empty."

Forth Sector, tel 0131 539 7374

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