The reason this quote was so pertinent to me is because this was not from a young person who has mental health needs (as far as I know), and they most certainly are not disengaged from society. What it illustrates for me is that current conversations around mental health don’t seem to make a distinction between mental health problems as a cause
, and as a symptom
I believe that mental ill-health cannot be addressed out of the context of a person’s life. Of course, there are some mental health conditions that effect people indiscriminately, and for them their poor mental health may be the cause of their life circumstances. However, there are also many young people who have been suffering other kinds of adversity, for sustained periods of time, who are now struggling with their mental health. For these young people, it’s a symptom. For these young people, their struggle with mental health problems is a consequence of the situations they find themselves in, rather than the original cause.
We know that there is a correlation between people living in poverty and poor mental health. Whilst poverty can be both a cause and a consequence of mental health issues in adults, we know that children living in the 25% poorest families in the UK are three times more likely to develop a severe mental health problem. Considering their mental health outside of the context of their life circumstances can surely only create sticking plaster solutions, which we simply cannot afford to waste time and resources on.
Whilst I am glad to hear arts and culture being recognised as something that can help support mental wellbeing, it’s also important to recognise the impact the ‘epidemic’ in mental ill-health is already having on our sector.
I have heard far too many arts practitioners describe situations where they have tried to trigger mental health support for young people, through Safeguarding referrals, only to be told that no help is available because their symptoms are not severe enough. In some parts of the country it can take two or more suicide attempts before support is offered through the NHS
I have been told of three North West organisations that have directly employed youth workers to support arts practitioners, due to the additional support needs young people are bringing to them. The sorts of things they may once have taken directly to youth workers. There are even arts organisations offering mental health services from their buildings. It seems all too easy for an arts practitioner to find themselves operating in territory that only a qualified mental health professional should be.
I strongly believe, especially with the increasing popularity of Social Prescribing, that it’s important we draw a clear distinction between the therapeutic benefits of arts and culture, and actual therapy.
In terms of what arts and culture can contribute, it seems to me that this is now widely accepted, at least in terms of alleviating the symptoms of poor mental health.
Most of us in the sector could reel off a list of benefits, which would include things like confidence, expression, team work, resilience, etc. We already know this stuff and there is evidence out there (although too many years of fighting our corner has perhaps led to a slight culture of over-claiming). What is less discussed, however, is how arts and culture can help deal with some of the causes of poor mental health - for those who have developed ill health through adverse circumstances.