“When I talk about arts and mental health, 3 things usually happen…”

Artistic Director of Mean Feet Dance, Viv Gordon, debunks the “the irritating assumption” that art relating to mental health is for therapy of self and not entertainment of other

The Ageas Salisbury International Arts Festival this year comes with the added oomph of the new MouthPieces programme. MouthPieces has been developed to showcase the creativity of diverse communities, this year focusing on work by artists, who like myself, have lived experience of mental health. The programme includes work by artists with a variety of experiences including anxiety, abuse and trauma, addiction, depression, stigma, suicide, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

I have had the pleasure to dream up and co-curate MouthPieces with Festival Director, Toby Smith, as a result of the Arts Council England South West’s Agents for Change initiative. The scheme matches National Portfolio Organisations with artists from diverse backgrounds, to formulate and take relevant steps forward.

At last in the arts we are learning that embracing diversity is not about targets or worthiness but about removing structural barriers so that previously marginalised voices are foregrounded. So much innovation happens on the edges of the arts sector influencing those who have the privilege and resources to run with new ideas. This tendency, which stinks of cultural appropriation dressed up as cross-fertilisation, is so out of date: to be honest, we really should know better…

But my, oh, my – those structural barriers are robust and the obstacles facing artists with mental health needs are varied and deeply entrenched.

When I talk about arts and mental health 3 things usually happen:

First, there is the irritating assumption that the work is “therapeutic” and its value lies in “helping” people. If we were talking about ANY OTHER minority group in these terms we would be in deep water. But somehow it is still acceptable to talk about people with mental health conditions in this way rather than in terms of voice, inclusion and good quality art.

This is often followed by the hackneyed response that the arts are full of people with mental health needs – the “you don’t have to be mad to work here” mentality. To a point that is true – art mirrors life and life is full of people with mental health needs – 1 in 4 adults in fact – officially we are the largest disabled population in the UK. But when we talk about disability rarely are we thinking about mental health. Unfortunately, unlike any other disabled group the onus is still very much on us to normalise than on the sector to enable.

Finally, it never takes long for someone to point out that the arts are already full of mental health narratives – so what is the problem? The issue is one of ownership, of people like me reclaiming the right to tell our own stories - to tell them with courage and authenticity from a place of true knowing. So many representations of mental health in the arts are watered down oversimplifications that are at best well meaning and at worst perpetuate stigma and discrimination.

If I sound frustrated - I am. Artists like me have grown up internalising the stigma that we really ought to try to be “normal”. Until we have an arts sector that actively engages with our needs as legitimate access needs, this frustration serves me well. It’s meant that I can start to do things differently. My own show I am Joan will be part of MouthPieces. It tells my story of life with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I have made it slowly and carefully, experimenting with a mental health friendly making and touring process, finding out and addressing what my needs are to do a good job. MouthPieces will enable a broader dialogue between artists with lived experience of mental health and is a real step forward in developing new ways of doing, a sense of community and unified voice.





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