UK charity Hospital Rooms has a clear mission to improve the standard of living for mental health patients through art. For the past six years, curator Niamh White and artist Tim A. Shaw have accessed the tightly controlled wards of UK National Health Service (NHS) buildings, working with patients, clinicians and artists at pinnacle of their art, from Nick Knight and Julian Opie to Anish Kapoor and Tschabalala Self.
White and Shaw started the charity after witnessing the austere clinical ward that housed a close friend who had been hospitalized. Their first project at Phoenix Unit in South West London, which helps people with schizophrenia, has brought together artists such as Gavin Turk, Sophie Clements and Knight. Since then they have worked with over 20 neighborhoods and partnered with mega gallery Hauser & Wirth on a Fundraising of £1 million ($1.2 million)which is due to end in 2025.
Grabbing the attention of the health and art worlds, however, hasn’t been easy. “When we started, it took between 18 months and two years for anyone to let us in,” White said. “It’s a high-risk environment where some people are very sick. So many assumptions are made about people in these wards, what they can and can’t do. I think we’ve had a little hand in change [people’s] opinions by possibly entering these enclosed spaces.
Hospital Rooms has just launched its latest project: the creation of 15 works for three wings of the Torbay Hospital in Devon. Two existing wings involved collaboration with patients and staff; the third, brand new, was designed with local residents. Participating artists include Anna Chrystal Stephens, Tom Hammick, Huhtamaki Wab and Simon Ripley.
“The Devon Recovery Learning Community connected us with people who have had experience with mental health services or whose family and friends do,” said Anna Testar, senior curator of the Hospital Rooms project. “We ran workshops alongside those in hospitals, building relationships with nurses, department heads and occupational therapists.”
“In the past, we’ve focused on neighborhood communities,” White said. “Torbay is a unique place with its own cultural and arts scene. We wanted to better understand the landscape and be a catalyst for future interventions.
Hospital Rooms sits at a unique intersection between art and healthcare. The team has the freedom to work with patients and clinicians as strangers. “It means we can approach things in a different way,” Shaw said. “It doesn’t carry over to their therapy.” This gives patients some independence from clinical assessments, as being able to speak freely about difficult internal experiences is not easy for those who are closely watched.
“Someone on our team has been through the experience of being on a mental health unit and has spoken to dozens of people on the wards,” Shaw said. “Many fear that if they express themselves sincerely, and it doesn’t come across as something nice and flowery, it could impact the length of their stay, their treatment and how they are viewed by people. psychiatrists.”
“We’re making it very clear that we’re coming to solve a problem and do something together,” White added. “We don’t take notes on patients and nothing they do will be analyzed by anyone. It is an equal partnership.
Julie Allan has been an art therapist for 30 years, most recently at The Hellingly Center— a psychiatric unit for people detained under the Mental Health Act who have also had contact with the criminal justice system. She met White and Shaw in 2019, when Hospital Rooms brought in artists such as Richard Wentworth and Sophie Clements to create artwork with patients.
“The role is really to help people express their darkness,” she said. “It’s mostly about making sure it’s contained, safe and that I’ve built a relationship with someone. Other mental health professionals fear that someone will come to art therapy and bare their soul and it will get very messy. For Allan, art enables a connection with difficult internal feelings that conventional talk therapies might not be able to. “I work with people who can’t talk about what they’re going through. Either they can’t express their feelings or they don’t understand them. Art can help with the thawing process.
Art and design are often the last priority, not always because of lack of interest, but because of limited resources. This year, 13.8% of NHS funding went towards mental health care, including for people with learning disabilities and dementia. Allan also mentions the lack of research on art therapy, which means the benefits of these treatments have yet to be fully summarized in reports.
“We know it’s powerful, but especially in NHS settings people want numbers and studies,” she said. “I’d like to think there’s been more acceptance in recent years, but that’s not [reflected in positions] established. The wards have been amazing in promoting the healing power of art, and the World Health Organization (WHO) talked about it too.
According to Shaw and White, Hospital Rooms is inundated with new project requests. While art isn’t a priority for overworked teams, the ability to have someone else fix the problem seems to be appreciated. “I think there’s an inherited wisdom that if you’re not feeling well, you should be in a white environment,” Shaw said. “It’s cleaner; it is easier to follow people. If you have to value something, you lose the skylight, the art, the special things that make it more than a cell. We can hold up a mirror to that and say it’s inhumane. It’s useful because people are used to it.
Recently, Hospital Rooms participated in the design of two new units in Springfield University Hospital. Artists such as Larry Achiampong, Sutapa Biswas and Yinka Ilori have all worked with patients on the project. The initiative also includes input from teams from South West London & St George’s Mental Health NHS Trust, Norwich University of the Arts, WHO and Wandsworth Council, as well as various local cultural partners. “The buildings in Springfield show a different way of doing things, with lots of light,” Shaw said. “Anna has also worked with artists from the new area of Torbay to bring in stained glass.”
Hospital Rooms takes the communities it works with seriously. Some patients have won art awards and many have continued their artistic practice. This all happened in accordance with a shift in the creative world as a whole, where community art is no longer seen as less important. “If you were a community or participatory artist, that was often seen as much weaker than other artists,” White said. “We want [elevate] the quality of everything associated with art and health. It is rigorous, it is valid; it just happens in different spaces.
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