How can art and design bring people together to improve our mental health?


Going through mental health services in England can be a disillusioning and traumatic process; with rife accounts of being passed around different departments in the NHS and continually facing long-wait lists for services. The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has seen a worsening of pre-existing mental health conditions, as well as many people experiencing difficulties for the first time, with Mind reporting “more than half of adults (60 per cent) and over two-thirds of young people (68 per cent) have said their mental health got worse during lockdown.” Mental health services need a close examination as to their efficacy, and while interventions from individuals and communities should not have to stand in for properly funded government services, they can indicate alternative methods for supporting mental health. Creative practitioners such as Cynthia Voza Lusilu, Becky Warnock and Abbas Zahedi, are among those using art and design to re-think approaches to mental health by prioritising different visual and creative entry points into how we look after ourselves and each other.

“How are we supposed to grieve when we are constantly hurt, violated, disrespected and mourning our people?”

Cynthia Voza Lusilu

Black Alliance for Lewisham Minds (BALM) is a project which stemmed from Cynthia’s time as the designer in residence at the Design Museum. Situated within the locality of the southeast London borough of Lewisham, which has one of the largest Black British populations in the UK, Cynthia worked collaboratively with residents, mental health practitioners and Voluntary Services Lewisham (VSL) to design free tools and resources which empower Black people in the local community to initiate dialogues around their mental health. Design is at the forefront of BALM and utilises visual engagement as a catalyst to get people talking about their mental health. Cynthia stresses that she is a designer, not a mental health practitioner, so an extensive research period was crucial to developing the project, through which she spent a lot of time talking with UK-based professionals. Cynthia was inspired to look for alternatives to individual therapy after becoming disillusioned with the support services available at her university and the lack of Black, Indigienous People of Colour working within them, as well as an acknowledgement of the disproportional impacts of anti-Blackness and Covid-19 on Black mental health; “How are we supposed to grieve when we are constantly hurt, violated, disrespected and mourning our people?” As Cynthia acknowledges, “There is an urgent need for reparations in our communities, and to me, it has to begin with emotional repair.”

BALM is an instantly recognisable project, with a colourful visual identity developed with illustrator Olivia Twist. Cynthia tells me: “We wanted to create visuals with vibrant colours and high contrasts for more accessibility, show different types of characters in confident postures, feeling at peace or just having fun.” Unified by these welcoming and intimate portraits, Cynthia and Olivia have taken mental health resources that are traditionally uniform in their blandness and made them refreshingly appealing. “It was essential to create vivid and playful imageries to visually communicate the joy and plurality of Black communities.” The results are conversation starter cards which operate similarly to a card game, asking thought-provoking questions around community, individual experience and identity, and a journal filled with quotes from activists and cultural figures while encouraging the participant to track their emotions. In so doing, Cynthia prioritises a person-centred and participatory approach to design with the potential to impact meaningful social change. “To me, designers are first and foremost dreamers who try to give life to one or many ideas they have in mind. To make a change in society, you cannot dream alone. You have to connect and relate with your environment – human, non-human, the planet and above – to jointly compose with a new reality.”

Becky Warnock and Abbas Zahedi don’t make “therapeutic art” as such, but through an acknowledgement of the multiple benefits of viewing and making art, they have been able to respond to the needs of individuals and communities throughout the pandemic. Around three years ago when Becky ran a one-off session with Creative People and Places Hounslow – supporting a group working around poetry to make imagery to accompany their writing – conversations emerged around the link between mental health and language: “how it so often fails to describe the battles that people have, how many barriers to accessing support it can create, and the possibilities of imagery to help explore this.” As a result, Becky got in touch with the Heston & Cranford Local Advisory Group who were co-running the session, to discuss devising a longer-term project focusing on mental health and photography.

“The times we live in intensify the importance of unity, we have the collective responsibility to be more empathetic, listen and relate to one another because nothing flourishes in isolation.”

Cynthia Voza Lusilu

Meanwhile, Abbas was influenced by his background as a medic to begin Sonic Support Group, a project which considers how viewing art might impact the ways we think and feel by inviting NHS and frontline workers to visit Abbas’ exhibition Ouranophobia SW3 which opened towards the end of 2020. After staying in touch with people he studied with, the catalyst for Sonic Support Group stemmed from some of Abbas’ medic friends initially coming to see the exhibition, and the resulting impact the visit had on them. Speaking to Abbas, he reflects: “Being in the space had a profound effect on them: they felt calmer, more in touch with themselves and their feelings, and at the same time very intrigued by the way I had responded to the building as if it was an expanded body undergoing some kind of a medical procedure.” Originally envisioned as a collaboration with the same friends, through their group Neurofringe (a collective of neurologists who research the intersections between neuroscience, art and society), the intention was to “rescript the idea of an art space […] seeing how a space could seemingly flex to different people’s needs and wants.” The third UK lockdown at the end of 2020 renegotiated the focus, with Sonic Support Group instead inviting groups of medical staff and individuals from nearby hospitals, with visitors attending on “their lunch breaks, after their shifts, or just when they needed some time out from the ICU.”

Though planned before any knowledge of the pandemic, Becky’s group also ended up meeting online throughout the UK lockdowns, and she has since created an open-access resource that distils their approaches into a document. The resource itself was inspired by a poem by Gabriel Akamo, written in response to conversations with the group during a workshop he ran. Becky and designer Rachael Burns tried to translate the “meandering flow” of the poem, which was “reminiscent of the lockdown walks we relied on,” into the visual identity, creating a useful tool that doubles as an artwork and thus encouraging people to return to it for support. Simultaneously, accessibility was a key concern from the offset, with the deliberate use of a restricted colour palette and clear, clean font and text. “We hope that we found a balance between showcasing the beautiful images that were made in the project, giving some visual ideas and illustrations for the prompts but also making a functional document that people might be able to use and enjoy.”

Abbas and his long-term collaborator Toby Upson are now considering the longevity of Sonic Support Group, and whether the project can be repurposed by the involvement of other artists and groups in what Abbas terms “social hacking.” In this way, Abbas and Toby indicate the potentials of art as a site where exchange and collaboration can flourish. “My practice is all about long-term collaboration, the pooling of resources or expertise. I approach this in a sort of horizontal manner: one where no one has a priority, everyone just needs to show up and give what they can to make the networked effort a reality. This is how I feel you can create something with communal benefits, rather than something extractive where only one person profits.” Such is certainly echoed by Cynthia, who summarises: “We need to practice radical collective care to make our way through healing. The times we live in intensify the importance of unity, we have the collective responsibility to be more empathetic, listen and relate to one another because nothing flourishes in isolation.”

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About the Author

Jamila Prowse

Jamila Prowse is an artist, writer and researcher who works across moving image and textiles to consider methodologies for visualising mixed race identity and the lived experience of disability.

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