While working on our latest newsletter I came across some great articles about artists, bipolar and how art has/is being used in their recovery. Some made the cut for our newsletter but others didn’t (mainly due to space) so I thought we would link to them here.
One that did make it in the newsletter was this Guardian article entitled Robert Burns’s suspected bipolar disorder used to fight illness’s stigma.
Dr Daniel Smith … said of Burns that the poet “had a complicated and some might say tempestuous personal history, with bouts of melancholic depression, heavy lifelong alcohol consumption and considerable instability in relationships, including a series of extramarital affairs”.
Smith, reader in psychiatry at the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Health and Wellbeing and a medical adviser to Bipolar Scotland, said it was “possible” that Burns’s “life history and his prodigious literary output may have been influenced by a recurrent disorder of mood, such as bipolar disorder”, although “it is difficult to prove conclusively”.
Liz Lochhead, Scotland’s Makar, said last year of Burns that “there’s quite a lot of compelling evidence that he was quite probably what would now be called bipolar – that kind of energy that can get the most incredible, almost supernatural amount of work done in a short time, while also ploughing the fields and making love to four different women”.
All of this is may be very interesting for the history student/fan of Burn’s work but what are the implications for us today?
Smith, in Glasgow, said that “the link between creativity and mental illness has been known since antiquity – for example, Aristotle observed that ‘No great genius has ever existed without a strain of madness’ – but more recent epidemiological research suggests a specific relationship between creativity and bipolar disorder”, adding that “this link has important implications for our understanding of the causes of severe mood disorders and understanding it more fully might help to tackle stigma against those with mental illness”.
Two articles that didn’t make the cut follow on from the ideas of the original article in the Guardian (isn’t this always the danger of researching on the internet). A Room With A View? Asylum Art in the 19th Century documents how art was an important part of the patients treatment.
“A room without pictures is as bad as a room without windows.”
So wrote a newspaper reporter in the Dumfries Herald in 1881, when commenting approvingly on the therapeutic environment of the Crichton Royal Institution and Southern Counties Asylum in Dumfries. Like many other psychiatric hospitals of the period, the galleries of this institution were indeed heavily decorated. Domestic furnishings, pictures, birdcages, plants and drapes were all intended to contribute to a domestic appearance, thought to be both comforting and morally and spiritually uplifting. Indeed, the domestic environment of the asylum was often interpreted as directly curative. The annual reports of many asylum medical superintendents frequently focused on improvements to facilities, with very little information that we might regard as directly medical, such as physical and pharmaceutical intervention.
And the staff weren’t just encouraged to participate, it was enforced with the possibility of unemployment if you didn’t.
Doctors also often regarded themselves as artists. Medical obituaries of the late nineteenth century regularly highlighted the various creative pursuits of psychiatrists, seen as an important indication of their intellectual status as Victorian gentlemen. Participation in musical and dramatic performances was expected of all asylum staff, including the low-paid ward attendants. Indeed, when one attendant walked out of a band practice session at the Crichton Royal Institution in Dumfries in December 1880, he was told by the superintendent to “choose whether to be obedient, contented and loyal or leave the place”. He selected the latter, and left that same evening. Theo Hyslop, superintendent of Bethlem Royal Hospital from 1898 to 1911, was a keen artist, who exhibited at the Royal Academy and later became a controversial art critic.
What caught my eye however was how much attention art received as a tool in therapy.
Hyslop also seems to have encouraged his patients to paint, and organised a public exhibition of some of this art at Bethlem in 1900. Indeed, in many asylums, some of the art on display was certainly created by patients. Sometimes, artists happened to be resident within the institution. Richard Dadd, for example, created most of his famous works while an inmate of Bethlem and, later, Broadmoor.
Artist and activist James Leadbitter is on a mission to design a user-friendly psychiatric hospital, with the help and ideas of anyone who wants to get involved.
The Madlove project is borne of Leadbitter’s own experiences on psychiatric wards which he feels did not always offer what he needed – even though he accepts that NHS hospitals have been necessary for him at other times.
Many comment on the less-than-helpful role that a hospital’s typically austere decor plays in aiding recovery.
The interior should be more welcoming, says Rowan Mataram, “moving away from the clinical [feel], so coloured pillows and non-white walls.”
There should be big windows and any white walls should be covered with plants, books or maybe patient artwork and poems, says Mataram. “It [would] feel more like a home/space where people can get back on their feet.”
Great stuff (even though the Victorians seemed to have some of this worked out over a century ago). But what if we took it a step further and instead of decorating walls with artwork, why not make the walls themselves a work of art?
One person with bipolar disorder, who wished to remain anonymous, wants to see a room “where I can explode with colour – whether it be paint or coloured liquids”. And rather than permanent mess, the room would be entirely washable – from floor tiles to the ceiling – complete with a drain. “Once the explosion is finished, [it] can be washed away easily and can go down the drain with no lasting damage caused.”
Wouldn’t everyone want a room like that.