I was honoured to lend some canvases for an exhibition curated by Liz Aldous (local ceramicist, sculptor and artist) to mark World Mental Health day in Luton this year. There will be work from local artists, MIND group members and a huge sculpture by members of a local homelessness/alcoholism shelter. I can’t wait to see what everyone has done and hope that lots of people visit.
It still feels as if suffering from mental health problems is very stigmatising, in a different way to being physically disabled. I don’t know many people who would list a mental disability on their application form or who would be comfortable in asking their employer to make adjustments for them. For many people, a mental illness can be intertwined into their personality in such a way that it is hard for them to conceive of living without it. Most of us keep our wierdnesses hidden unless/until we hit a crisis and have to seek treatment.
I was writing a paragraph to go with my paintings and had to think very hard about this. In my teens I suffered from depression, was treated for it, and felt so unlike myself on the treatment that I’ve taken myself off it and built coping strategies instead. During that time I have known a lot of people who have suffered from depression or bi-polar disorder or schizophrenia to various degrees – some of them have undergone therapy, some have undergone treatment, some have read up about their condition and tried to create structures for themselves, some have self medicated with drugs and alcohol, some have ignored it and hoped it will go away. I don’t know anyone who has really “got better”, but people learn to cope and live good lives.
We’ve recently had a brush with a close friend who has bi-polar disorder, was behaving very oddly, but was convinced that they were fine. They were bursting with theories and ideas, kept strange hours, forgot to eat or clean their house. They ended up being sectioned and having medication forced on them. Now they’re calmer and still themselves, arguably able to lead a more constructive life, but they, and the rest of their friends, feel that there’s some spark (of personality?) missing. Was that the illness? Because although it was obvious that they “weren’t right” before they were treated, that spark wasn’t all bad.
Mental illness is such a big subject, it has moral and political implications for freedom of thought and how those who don’t conform are treated. There is still a fear of being judged and medicated if you act in a way which society considers peculiar, and maybe we’re poorer for that. But on the other hand, many mental illnesses cause so much pain and confusion to the sufferer and those close to them, and prevent people from looking after themselves, that treatment sometimes has to be forced.
It’s a moral quagmire, and I’m glad I’m not in the mental health profession. I would not want that burden on me, of deciding who was sane and who needed to be “fixed”.
Here is the paragraph I wrote for the exhibition.
Emergence – Lucy Luton
A diagnosis of mental illness can challenge your sense of self and your place in the world. It can feel alienating, as if you’re excluded from a shared reality, unable to see or react to things the same way that other people do. You may feel lonely and unsure, disconnected, but within you there is a tremendously powerful, adaptable core which makes you who you are. Sometimes the worst things you go through in life bring you closer to understanding and accepting yourself. This series was made emerging from a period of clinical depression and I think my hope for the future and sense of my place within the world was beginning to come back as I painted.