​the fraught relationship between creativity and mental health

We look at the work of The Hospital Rooms, a new charity commissioning world-class contemporary artists to renovate mental health wards in hospitals with museum quality site specific artworks

by Greg French
15 April 2016, 7:13pm

Nick Knight, Pale Rose

In the past 25 years, rates of depression and anxiety amongst young adults have risen by a staggering 70%. It's estimated that 1 in 4 people aged between 16 and 25 have had suicidal thoughts, and amongst our personal network of friends or colleagues, we will all experience some form of fallout from mental health issues within our lifetime. According to the World Health Organization, "globally, there is huge inequity in the distribution of skilled human resources for mental health."

Those are worrying statistics — but more worrying is that those numbers are set to rise significantly in the next five years. Obvious reasons can be identified: the growth of social media, financial pressures, and the media's portrayal of unachievable "beauty." These have all been identified as some of our modern-day triggers. The pace of our day-to-day lives too can so often prove a burden — a recent issue apparent in the fashion sector, with the departure of some of our great designers from leading fashion houses.

It comes as no surprise that in 2015, an Icelandic study claimed to find a genetic link between creativity and mental illness, with results suggesting that 25% of creative people are more susceptible to bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, due to specific genes that they carried. It begs the question, how and why are creativity and mental health so intricately connected?

Nick Knight, Lily

Artists have long projected their mental status into their own creative practice. Picasso, for example, had a recognizable transition between his Rose Period and Blue Period, a shift that occurred in the Spanish artist's aesthetic following the suicide of his dear friend Carlos Casagemas. Gone were his characteristically colorful splashes of paint. In their place: melancholic azure tones, following a severe bout of depression. This lasted for four years, evolving into his Rose Period where the blues were replaced by cheerful oranges and reds. "Art," Picasso once said, "washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life."

Mark Rothko is another example — his fluctuating psychological condition can be traced through the pairing of colors in his paintings. His large scale canvas pieces, swathed with varying tones, are perhaps most known for their visual impact on the viewer — their colors transitioning to grayscale following Rothko's diagnosis of an aortic aneurysm. Shortly before his suicide, Rothko produced one of his final paintings, Untitled, Black on Grey, an indicator of the troubled mind of the artist.

Walking into the Rothko room that forms part of the permanent collection at London's Tate Modern — there is an instant feeling imparted to the viewer. It's a reminder of the power and aura that artwork can have on us. A new charity, The Hospital Rooms — founded by Curator Niamh White and Artist Tim A. Shaw recognizes the significance of this — and commissions world-class contemporary artists to renovate mental health wards in hospitals with museum-quality site specific artworks. The project is supported using public funding by Arts Council England and Morris Markowe League of Friends of Springfield Hospital, and is also partnered with Dulux Trade, Liquitex, and Metro Imaging.

Assemble, Granby Workshop

"Art and mental health do have a well documented history, and many of our most revered artworks depict internal trauma," Niamh explains. "These images have had a hand in de-stigmatizing mental health and communicating it as part of the human condition."

It's perhaps why some of the most tragic tales of creatives unravel so poetically amongst their own work. Lee McQueen often explored some of the darkest levels of the psyche — translating them into garments and fantastical runway productions. It's no secret that Lee himself struggled with mental illness, and the pieces he made that grappled with those emotions are notable amongst his oeuvre. As painter Francis Bacon noted, "the feeling of desperation and unhappiness are more useful to an artist than the feeling of contentment, because desperation and unhappiness stretch your whole sensibility."

There is an extensive list of well-established creatives involved in The Hospital Rooms initiative: Gavin Turk, Acconci Studio, Michael O'Reilly, Aimee Parrott, Joh Bates, and recent Turner Prize winners Assemble. Fashion photographer and director of SHOWstudio Nick Knight has also contributed two prints for the charity. The works have not been shown together before but create an incredible rhythm and energy side by side. Echoing perhaps his own relationship with Lee McQueen, Knight states, "some of the most creative and accomplished people that I have known have encountered difficulty with their mental health at one stage or another. It seems to me that making vulnerable patients' environments pleasant and stimulating is of the utmost importance and would be conducive to recovery and recuperation."

Assemble, Granby Workshop

The trust also provides monthly workshops for patients, led by some of those aforementioned artists — in order for them to express their thoughts and feelings within a creative medium. Whilst the 2015 study may suggest a genetic link between creativity and mental health, many still argue that anyone is susceptible to suffering from mental health issues regardless of the industry or educational institution they might be in. What is clear is that creativity provides patients with a remedial outlet.

Young Minds, the charity that looks after the wellbeing of young people's mental health agrees with this stance. "Creativity is a really important therapeutic medium for many young people who are suffering emotionally to channel their feelings and experiences, and many therapeutic interventions use art and music effectively to help young people with their recovery process," explains Lucie Russell, the charity's Director of Campaigns and Media.

"It is a myth that young people in creative education are more susceptible to suffering from mental health issues. Any young person can suffer from mental ill health and nurturing creativity in schools and in higher education can be a good way to help young people to express themselves and develop a language for their feelings"

Tim A Shaw, Gaze

There is still a hazy area when it comes to exploring creativity and mental wellbeing. If we look back to those artists whose work is so noticeably marred with emotion, their practice provided them with a sense of escape. McQueen once said, "fashion should be a form of escapism, and not a form of imprisonment." The arts are so very important to help us loosen those shackles — and that's why new charities such as The Hospital Club are crucial, particularly in light of recent cuts to art funding and education in the UK. The arts are providing us with solutions to many of our inexplicable problems and de-stigmatizing the previously untouched. As Francis Bacon once stated, "if you can talk about it, why paint it?"


Text Greg French

mental health
the hospital rooms