Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Self-medicating with art

Self-medicating with art 

On 11th July we participated in a discussion at The House of Lords about the value of arts and health, particularly our recent project The Homeless Library, supported by The Heritage Lottery. There is now a huge weight of evidence to show that arts and health projects have a powerful effect on the well-being and health of people who take part in them. However there is still a lot of concern about putting healthcare funding into arts and health. Here is the short presentation we contributed. 

Danny was sleeping on the street when we first met him. His fear of being around people held him at bay from the world. During the two years we gradually got to know him, Danny braved many fears, because the drive to make art was so strong. As he embraced poetry, he also embraced the company of others and began to address his difficulties. He said of this project: "It's put me back on the ladder to life."

Art allows public dialogue with the deeper private self. People share their deepest beliefs, feelings, fears, hopes. This is why artists make work and why people want to see/hear/read what they have to say. Making art can bring great satisfaction and community, in that sense it is healing. It is one of the best ways of communicating between human beings.

And for the individual? In our experience the safe space of art-making is similar to both therapy and childhood play. It brings joy, it brings insight.

The psychologist Polly Kaiser, who has written footnotes for The Homeless Library, observes that people can only change their lives using therapy if they have a safe place to do it. Homeless people by definition do not possess a safe place: therefore many of the stories they tell are of damage with no chance to heal.

The temporary place of safety that we've offered has been these discussions and particularly the making of art and poetry. The shared delight of the creative sessions was uplifting to witness. To offer people a short time away from fear, from addiction, from intimidation was perhaps the most valuable gift that we had to bring. The intensity of involvement was the intensity of people enjoying a rare and precious luxury. Self-expression is one of the deepest human needs, it defines identity, allows change and brings joy. It was what we gave, in fair exchange for their honesty.

Lawrence is a man who grew up witnessing extreme violence, as a child he was malnourished and ate dog food. Now, instead of self-medicating with continual substance abuse he writes poetry and grows a garden. He self-medicated with art. He says of making art and gardening at The Booth Centre: "There is genius in everyone and (this) has the ability to bring it out. I was a piece of detritus on the street and they found the gold-winning, cup-winning me. I was excrement and I found the garden, from excrement to compost."

Detail from the current South Bank Exhibition.

The Arts and Public Health Round Table was hosted by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing. It was one in a series of round tables in which practitioners, academics, policy makers, those with lived experience and managers of services are invited to share their knowledge and experience with parliamentarians. The information gathered will be used to inform policy recommendations for the Inquiry into Arts, Health and Wellbeing. Find out more about the APPG and Inquiry here: www.artshealthandwellbeing.org.uk/appg

FREE ebook. Yours for a limited time, The Homeless Library ebook, with insights into the lives and experiences of Britain's homeless, including art and poetry.

The Homeless Library project is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund

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