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Clinical Practice Symposium

I was recently invited to speak at the 12th Shared Learning in Clinical Practice Symposium: Showcasing Engagement in Mental Health and Suicide Prevention.

Whilst thrilled to be invited to speak, I was also quite intimidated by the professionals I had to present in front of!

What is it exactly?

The symposium is a Research Week special event led by UniSA's Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Research Group. It features focussed discussion on Engagement in Mental Health and Suicide Prevention in South Australia, taking a 'deeper dive' into how and why collaboration is essential for mental health nursing, suicide prevention and education.

I was asked to speak about my experience last year as an Artist in Residence at Glenside’s Rural and Remote inpatient unit. There were almost 100 people in attendance, and for those that couldn’t make it, don’t worry! I have transcribed my speech just for you :)

Hi everyone, thank you so much for coming today and showing interest in the Artist in Residence program!

Who Am I?

My name is Ashton and I am an abstract expressionist painter based in Adelaide. While I have created art my whole life, I have been practicing professionally for about 4 years now, exhibiting in Adelaide and interstate. I have created artwork for the the new Headspace Facility in Edinburgh North, for their consulting, training room and receptions area, and also have original work in the Borderline Personality Collaborative in the Adelaide CBD.

If you’re not familiar with my work, it is inspired by my Polynesian background and influenced strongly by my own lived experience of clinical depression. I am passionate in advocating for metal health awareness and donate a portion of sales to Headspace Australia.

What is the Artist in Residence Program?

The Artist in Residence (AiR) program at Glenside Health Services provides is a very unique opportunity for an artist to see how mental illness is treated and managed in a clinical setting. The Unit accommodates people from regional areas, that have been diagnosed with major mental illness. These people are away from their home and local support networks, and generally stay for around two weeks on average.

The program allows two South Australian artists access to Glenside’s Rural and Remote Inpatient Unit. We spend time with consumers and staff over a three month period, and create new work in response to our experience. At the end of the residency we exhibit the work together during the SALA Festival.

Why Me?

I first heard about this great initiative 2017 and it really resonated with me.

Since art had such a strong impact on my own recovery, I was interested to see if I could use it to assist others in theirs. Fortunately my passion for art in the treatment and management of mental health was recognised and my application to participate in the program was successful!

I was so excited to bring abstract art to consumers, to share my experience and to see if I could help in anyway. I felt that my own lived experience could potentially benefit the consumers, as I could openly engage with them and relate without judgement.

During my own recovery I relied heavily on art, specifically large black and white, geometric drawings. This was an open channel I could use to express myself. I was able to let everything that was in my mind flow through me and onto the page.

It was helpful on many levels, and the best part?

I didn’t have to articulate what I was feeling into words in order to draw.

I could just do it.

When you are so far into that dark hole of depression, you feel numb.

It feels impossible to describe, because to be honest, you don’t quite know what it is.

Feeling frustrated and isolated, all you want to do is withdraw from the world completely.

By drawing and eventually painting, I found that I wasn’t lying in bed ruminating on negative thoughts. Instead, I was sitting at a table drawing repetitive patterns.

This simple activity provided an opportunity for people to engage with me by talking about what I was drawing. The best bit was that I didn’t have to talk about my feelings (what a relief!)

The drawings also gave me a sense of achievement and that really helped me stop sinking into that dark hole again. Feeling like I had done something that day provided a level of relief and having something to show for it was important.

My Residency Experience

So with all this in mind I began the residency by painting and drawing in a common area, where consumers would come in for tea and coffee and meals.

Initially, there were a few strange looks when people at the unit saw my work, which is brightly coloured and intricate. But eventually a couple of people asked if they could watch me while created.

In this instance, art provided a reason for conversation. Since it was abstract, consumers could really say anything about what they thought of the colours and the shapes they saw within it. There was no judgement as there was no right or wrong answer. They were thinking creatively without realising.

It wasn’t long before people would ask if they could try doing some art with me and in no time at all I was running art groups once a week.

This was really rewarding work and certainly my favourite part of the residency.

I encouraged consumers to try some abstract painting techniques that I use, by using fluid acrylic paints that have a watery consistency. We let the paint take control on the paper and took a moment to be present, watching the colours marble and interact.

Most people seemed to really enjoy this process, with each painting being uniquely their own.

For those feeling overwhelmed by a blank canvas, I provided pre-prepared abstract paintings and asked them to trace the existing shapes. This was a really good method for involving consumers that were nervous to be involved or even begin.

Providing half finished artwork was really popular, as it took the pressure off the consumers worried about being ‘creative’. As the paintings were already half done, they didn’t feel like the artwork was a reflection of their own skill, and were much more relaxed about taking part in the group.

They did not have not make any decisions on things like colour or medium. They just followed the lines of the existing piece using a pen, and in no time at all they got into a flow of their own.

Although there was a craft room available onsite, I found that attendance to art groups there was low. The craft room, despite the name was not ideal in this instance.

It was dark and relatively small, surrounded by too many distractions, posters, magazines, paints etc.

I found that the common area was a much more successful place for creation.

It was nice and bright with plenty of natural light coming in, and it was also bigger than the craft room, open-plan with 6 or 7 large round tables. It allowed curious consumers to easily breeze in and out of the space. They could glance over and see what we were doing whilst getting a tea or coffee.

Initially, I think that was a good excuse for them to see what I was up to from a safe distance!

So this space worked on a few levels:

- The multiple tables allowed people to work on their own quietly whilst still being part of the group if they chose.

- People could share a table and talk about what they were doing.

- The space was perfect for creating ‘flow’, which was so awesome to see.

The regular art groups would start with noisy chatter and eventually quieten down while they became enveloped in their own creations. Whilst consumers were encouraged to use whatever medium they wanted from the art trolley, I found most people needed some level of direction.

Close up details of my original painting 'London'

The Art Groups

In the art groups I recommended some abstract painting techniques that I liked to use and I found this worked really well!

Because creating abstract art was unfamiliar to all the people I encountered there, everyone was starting at the same level. Regardless of age, or level of perceived experience, there was no judgement and there was no right or wrong.

Upon realising this, people gradually started to try new things, some of the men, who first began with black paint, began using brighter colours and glitter. Others that started out timidly drawing small figures, later didn’t mind if the paint went outside the lines or even off the page.

There were no rules in regards to how long you had to attend the class for, as everyone works at their own pace. I would stay for 2 hours and some consumers would stay right until the end and even help pack up, other regular attendees created their work quickly and would only stay for 30 minutes.

The groups created an opportunity for indigenous consumers to create some traditional art and talk about its significance to them and their families back home. This was a really nice way of feeling connected to their culture and to loved ones that were unable to visit due to distance.

I found a few of the parents there were quite distressed and felt a deep sense of guilt being away from their children and families. So the workshops created an opportunity for those parents to create gifts for their children. Making things like birthday cards and decorated name signs for their children’s bedroom doors, helped to validate their time at the Rural and Remote Unit.

As a result of the art groups, consumers had pieces to show their visitors and colourful things to stick on their bedroom walls. It also gave staff an opportunity to talk to consumers about their creations which sometimes led to deeper discussions.

The art groups also provided a safe space for consumers to bring in drawings they had done in their own time, and I think they enjoyed having an artist there to show them to. I found that as we continued with the groups, some consumers would work on their pieces during the week, looking forward to the following weeks group to show me their progress.

The Art Trolley!

What I Learnt

I learnt a few things from running abstract art groups.

Art is an amazing platform for communication!

Creating art is something that almost anyone can do, especially abstract art, and it’s quite powerful in terms of consumer engagement.

Whilst focussing on painting or drawing, consumers seem more likely to talk about their day to day personal lives.

Art creates a non verbal way of expressing yourself, which can be confronting at times.

It allows you the freedom to express everything and anything, which is something that people (with depression for example) struggle to do. This expression can eventually lead to opportunities for connection.

As we know, art uses the creative side of the brain. In my experience traditional therapy techniques often rely on the analytical side of the brain to talk about ourselves, which can be difficult for many people and not always easy.

By using art there is potential to get to the heart of some issues faster, because it’s pure expression.

Less time is spent analysing and thinking about trauma, and more time can be spent expelling negative emotions onto a canvas. This process can be quite liberating for many people.

Some of the consumers work from our art groups.

In Conclusion

In my personal view, art is really a vessel to hold thoughts and emotions (positive and negative) outside of your body. It may be that you don’t have room for them in your mind, or you may want to share them. You might not be able to find the words you need, and by using shape and colour it’s much easier to get the ball rolling.

Art is a seriously good outlet that cannot be overlooked!

In healthcare, I think the use of art in recovery is paramount and we are only just seeing the beginning of its myriad of benefits, particularly in the treatment and prevention of mental illness.

I hope my experiences and the way I see the connection between art and mental health, can contribute to the bigger picture, in Australia and beyond.

I would like to thank Dr Amy Baker, David Mosely and Professor Nicholas Proctor for the opportunity to participate in the Artist in Residency Program, and really thank them for their support.

And of course, thank you for listening to me speak today or taking the time to read this at home.


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