Art and mental health has long been intertwined – you only have to think of painter Vincent van Gogh who famously had bipolar disorder.

Now the charity Painting in Hospitals are going one step further and using art to help patients in mental distress inside inpatient units.

They have a collection of over 4,000 museum-quality artworks in hospitals, care homes, GP surgeries and cancer centres across the UK bringing comfort and reassurance to over 1.8 million people a year.

As part of their Art in Large Doses project, students from the BA (Hons) Culture, Criticism and Curation course at Central Saint Martins were asked to propose an art exhibition to support the wellbeing of patients at King's College NHS Health Centre.

This public exhibition is currently running at King’s College London NHS Health Centre until May 2018, and aims to disrupt the clinical feel of an NHS waiting room by contrasting it with images of nature and landscapes to create a mental escape for patients.

Nature calls

Thomas Walshaw from Paintings in Hospitals says: “The exhibition at King's College, Nature Calls, aims to relieve stress and anxiety by offering patients a temporary escape from their clinical surroundings and from the inner city itself.

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“By introducing artworks and installations that depict natural forms and scenery, the curators hoped to remind patients of a simpler time when more of us lived in rural areas. The exhibition comprises paintings, photographs and prints of seascapes, landscapes, flora and fauna.”  

Can art really help?

'Art often offers a service user the chance to express their inner thoughts without using words'

Can art really help someone suffering from acute mental distress such as psychosis or schizophrenia? Walshaw says: “There is a large amount of evidence showing that art can improve our mental health and wellbeing in a wide variety of ways (most recently summarised in the 2017 report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing).

“We already know that art can ease anxiety, stress and depression for patients, service users and care staff. Unfortunately, not much research has yet been conducted on the effects of art on specific severe mental health conditions like schizophrenia or psychosis.

“However, what we do know is that both viewing and making art improves communication between service users and care staff. Art often offers a service user the chance to express their inner thoughts without using words. We regularly hear of artists using their art to deal with severe mental health problems.”

Probably one of the most popular artists in the world, Yayoi Kusama, lives in a psychiatric hospital in Japan and uses art to manage the intense audio-visual hallucinations she experiences as part of her condition.

She calls her work ‘art medicine’.

Art therapy

Indeed, a factor of the psychiatric ward is the interactive art classes which are put on by occupational therapists.

Patients can experiment with all kinds of art practises and the idea is that it soothes and aids them.

'Art can enable and empower people to discover meaning, dignity and purpose in their experiences'

Dr Ahmed Hankir, from the Royal College of Psychiatrists and author of The Wounded Healer says: “People who experience mental distress can express themselves through the vehicle of art and report that this process is both therapeutic and cathartic. Individuals with mental health issues often state that they are made to feel invalid by the communities that they were ostracised from and that this is intoxicating and dehumanizing.

"Art can enable and empower people to discover meaning, dignity and purpose in their experiences and this can play a crucial role in their recovery.”

This is just one step in the war against mental health difficulties and a way for patients to integrate themselves back into society after a spell in hospital.

It is an oasis in an experience which can be challenging and frightening – it is a welcome move in the right direction to create places of recovery and healing and not just incarceration.