Using creative self expression to support mental wellbeing
Creative People and Places Hounslow take us through 'Walking with the Unseen', a project led by local people with no specialised experience of arts and cultural leadership. It shares how by working together and deliberating the issues that they identified locally, they developed an idea that tackled the huge subject of mental health in a creative and supportive way.
Creative People & Places Hounslow is part of Arts Council England’s national investment in engaging new audiences in the arts, in areas where there is little or no access to arts and culture.
Our 10-year vision for the Creative People and Places programme is that, together, we will build a confident, colourful, creative Hounslow.
CPP Hounslow works with Local Advisory Groups (LAGs) who programme creative activity in their area.
Local people consider what gaps there are in provision and what is needed: in this area, local people on the LAG recognised the challenges of mental ill health and how the local community on the Beavers estate struggles with a range of concerns related to isolation, loneliness and depression.
The Heston & Cranford LAG – the group based around Beavers estate - has been programming a community gallery space in the local Salisbury Cafe for 2 years. The LAG works closely with the café owners to ensure that they are happy with the work being exhibited.
In late 2017 the LAG created a project called Where I Live, the objective of which was to present the local Beavers Estate in a positive light. Some older residents contributed stories and the LAG contributed photos of the estate. The local community selected the final 6 photos for printing at the nearby community hub and the narratives and photographs formed the resulting exhibition.
Following this, the LAG wanted to create a project that took the idea a step further and that would really get to grips with talking about the kind of anxiety, isolation and depression that they witness on the estate.
One of the LAG members is involved with the Hounslow Wellbeing Network and in May 2018 was part of their Human Library project at Hounslow Library for Metal Health Awareness Week. He also created a photography book which included photographs he had taken along with poems inspired by the photos that had been written by a friend. This book and the Human Library, together with Where I Live were the catalysts for the Walking With The Unseen project.
We had two core objectives:
- Offering local people an opportunity for creative self-expression, particularly concerning mental well being. Therefore creating an open forum for talking about mental health
- Create an exhibition that would have an impact and encourage the continuation of an open and frank discussion of mental ill health.
The LAG wanted to offer workshops for people to participate in (1 x photography and 1 x poetry) therefore offering the creative self-expression component. Whilst this was being planned, an opportunity came up to register for ‘Share this’, an exploration of self-expression through social media as part of the Outdoor Arts Programme at Bell Square.
For the impact component, they wanted the resulting exhibition to tour: to reach as many people as possible and to therefore start an ongoing dialogue about mental well-being.
The LAG meets monthly to plan and implement its activities. The group worked on the planning of this project for 6 months and commissioned artists to facilitate the 2 workshops.
When the opportunity came up to include the Company Chameleon performance of Witness This and the post show forum (Share This), the LAG recognised the value that this would add. As a local programming group they have also begun to be more aware of the broader programming by the CPP Programme and that of Bell Square and in particular have valued as an audience the quality of the work that they have seen at Bell Square. For the group incorporating Witness This and Share This was an easy decision.
The artist commissioning process was reasonably straight forward. The LAG reviewed recommendations from PhotoVoice for the photography facilitator and commissioned CPP Hounslow Company Development Awardee Poetical Word as the poetry facilitator. Recommendations for both of these came from the LAG with the Programme Manager following up with the artists involved. Decisions were made at meetings and based on a shared understanding of the project objectives.
The LAG developed a marketing plan that involved a double sided flyer and specific local groups and services to target.
Information about the project was shared with WeCoProduce, Hounslow Wellbeing Network, West London Mental Health NHS Trust and the Adult Mental Health and First Contact team at London Borough of Hounslow.
The LAG also used their social networks to share information about the project to local people.
One LAG member also attended a coordinating meeting of WeCoProduce (a service-user led Community Interest Company (CIC) that brings local people across West London with lived experience of using the NHS and social care systems to work with professionals at all levels). This resulted in an invitation for the exhibition to be shown at Lyric Hammersmith.
In this area relationship based advocacy of the project was critical and LAG members used their local networks to talk about the project and to encourage local people to attend.
The workshops were well attended with 9 people attending the photography workshop and poetry workshop and 5 attending the Bell Square performance and post show forum. 4 participants attended all 3 parts of the programme.
The poetry and photography workshops were facilitated by one person per workshop.
Sed and Paul, Curating workshop, Walking with the Unseen
The project participants had an intense high quality experience. As the exhibition begins to tour, we will monitor the impact of the work on the wider audience.
Evaluation of the workshops was strong. Comments included:
- I quite often have little thoughts in my head but I never write them down so they’re quickly forgotten. So perhaps this is encouraging me to write things down more often.
- I like that it’s got some of us out of our comfort zone. It certainly has with me. It’s got us to try new things and to be more creative and I want it to go on for a bit longer. I don’t want the workshops to end!
- Inspiring but also elevating and encouraging, makes me want to look at things in different ways
- Nice to see there is so much creativity locally. And to have this space to develop the ideas that you’re all talking about. To be part of the conversation. That’s really nice, a sense of community.
Successes and challenges
Participants for the workshop series were recruited by word of mouth. Experience in local area has told us that trust and relationship based information sharing is what works.
A local church whose vicar has recently joined the LAG shared information about the project with several of her more vulnerable parishioners and one of these individuals committed to all 3 elements of the project and was deeply impacted by the work we did.
One participant was recruited through a talk given by the Programme Manager at a meeting of the Hounslow Well-Being Network. This participant also committed to all 3 elements.
The poetry workshop was the most challenging part of the programme. On the day of the workshop the contracted facilitator notified us that he was unable to attend. With no notice given, the LAG made a decision to invite one of the LAG members to run the workshop. CPP Hounslow's usual processes mean that due to conflicts of interest, LAG members do not participate in this way - this was an exception to that rule given the unusual circumstances. The LAG member ran a very simple writing exercise asking people to reflect on the photographs for inspiration. Participants then shared their poems with the group.
The resulting poems were raw and visceral. The group opted to keep these - no editing or finishing processes.
Stop I am Death But I don't come to take Life I come to watch Life, watch you live To love, laugh, cry Watch your joy as you live See the creation of Life But then I am sad for you, the gift you have been given can be so wasted You hate, kill, have little love for each other Why do you waste this gift of Life? I am Death, I have never lived If I had, would I want to?
Though unexpected and unplanned, this provided an opportunity for the LAG member to grow in self-confidence and she has since written and spoken about her experience of working with the LAG and CPP Hounslow across Hounslow and beyond.
The Witness This/Share This part of the programme brought the whole programme together in an unexpected way. Kevin Edward Turner’s very honest sharing of his experiences was very powerful for the group.
This project was a response to a local situation but not a unique one. Photography as a medium is accessible to both consume and create. Poetry can appear challenging but with the right facilitation, can be no more or less than a playing around with words.
It's important to note that this project germinated over a period of 18 months and is part of an ongoing study. The LAG are now working on a study of the language used to describe mental health and how this could be better used to reflect the frustrations and needs of local people.
The photography workshop was well planned and thought out, but in retrospect could have connected to the other elements of the project in a more meaningful way. The LAG could have spent more time examining how the workshops linked in with each other.
This project was led by local people with no specialised experience of arts and cultural leadership. By working together and deliberating the issues that they identified locally, they developed an idea that tackled the huge subject of mental health in a creative and supportive way.
The group did not expect to change the environment of mental health locally, but they did want to open up conversations. The project would have benefited from more local visibility. As local programmers, the LAG do not have access to media and PR expertise and this may have given them a real boost.