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A curse and a blessing

Brenda (not her real name), aged 29, is a personable and open woman with an easy laugh and a keen interest in art. It would be hard to guess that she has been struggling with mental illness since her early teenage years. Variously diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder and depression, and with a history of self-harm, Brenda's illness forced her to drop out of Edinburgh University and has prevented her from working since 1996.

Nevertheless, she jumped at the chance to enroll in Forth Sector's SQA arts and design course after hearing about it from an employee of the organisation.

"This course is quite different from the community arts classes that I took because it is more structured and it's seeking to develop our skills. It's much more focused," she explains.

"I really wanted to explore art a bit more because I am a creative person. I just really lacked confidence and I didn't know what standard my work was at when I began this class."

In the past six months Brenda has found that she has developed not only artistically, but as a person as well.

"This course has given me discipline, because if I was left on my own I wouldn't produce much at all. It's given me a lot of confidence and made me realise that perhaps my work isn't as bad as I thought it was.

"It's also made me work on aspects of my character," she says. "With art you have to face things, even if you're feeling depressed. It forces me to get out of bed and it gives me a sense of achievement. It also takes my mind off whatever is going on in my life and my mind, and gives me a break."

Brenda admits that her mental illness can act as both a curse and a blessing in relation to creativity. "When I'm down it's very difficult for me to work, but when I'm up it's great and I'll produce stuff like mad," she says.

"I think people with mental health problems can achieve more than the standard perception is. My illness has given me a greater range of emotions than if I had stable moods and that can help my art. In a way, I probably live a richer life than the average person."

Brenda says she has been pleased with the progress that she has managed over the past six months; her wildlife drawings and screen prints are imbued with a sense of levity and humour, and her personality is beginning to shine through her work. Nevertheless, she admits that she did strike a low period recently and was ready to give up the course until one of the course tutors stepped in and helped her to get back on her feet.

"A few weeks ago I was ready to give up, but Lisa Arnott came out to my home and spent an hour with me. She gave me reassurance and helped me get involved in the class again."

Now, it seems, almost nothing can stop her from continuing to work on her art. "My husband at times says he feels like an artist's widower," she jokes, "but he has also recognised the benefits socially for me. He sees it as something that is developing my potential and he's very supportive."

As for the future, Brenda has some clear goals in mind. "I'd like to develop my painting skills and take some part-time art classes," she says.

With a bit of gentle prodding, she goes as far as to admit: "I'd love to be able to earn a living through art. It would be great to be an artist."

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