Students, Mental Health and the Arts

Student, sketching by hand on canvas

My own interest in mental health started during my time at art college. In my art therapy foundation year, four of my peers experienced what I would now recognise as mental health problems including anorexia and psychotic episodes. The tragedy was that no-one in the college, including the teaching team, knew how to respond, to support, and to keep a connection with these students. They had become increasingly isolated and unreachable. Parents were contacted and asked to whisk their children back home (in one case, they had to await discharge from a psychiatric unit). Silence then ruled and they were not mentioned again and never came back. Amongst our young cohort, a sense of unease spread and although a few of us did try to make some sense of events, we all felt rather confused and helpless.

Although my experience was a long time ago, recent discussions with young graduates indicated that things have not changed a great deal within universities. Interestingly, awareness of mental health issues and how to access help was growing amongst students.

It is therefore really good news that universities are now recognising that they need a Step Change with regard to students’ mental health (StepChange). One aspect of strategy focuses on prevention and, thinking about the impact of isolation (being away from family and old friends) on the mental health of my student peers, I sincerely hope that universities will look into the innovative work done within arts in health and arts therapies that supports wellbeing and relational processes. The All Party report, Creative Health, includes a whole section evidencing the benefits of the arts within Education.  It would be great if universities adopted a truly creative approach to mental health. Students who experience emotional distress can benefit from a choice of interventions, and the arts can certainly support them in finding a path back to themselves and to others.