The history of mental health treatment and stigma is a long one, with very little, if any, representation appearing in our museums and archives. In particular, the lived experiences of those with mental health issues are chronically under represented. This leaves public perceptions of mental health in the hands of fiction and an often sensationalist news media.
The Heads & Tales project is about exploring, rebalancing and celebrating the voice of people experiencing Mental Health issues in the North East. Looking back through time from the late 1800s on, participants have gathered together and responded to current Archives in Museums, Health, and Arts sectors. As well as this reflective work, the project will begin to create substantial new archives, with the starting point of the Declaration of Human rights in 1948, up to the present day.
Through Artistic means, the project participants aim to capture and create new material for the archives that show a more diverse perspective and understanding of the contemporary Mental Health Sphere. It is hoped that this will raise equality in archival material of an underrepresented group by creating new narratives of people’s memories and experiences for future archives and generations.
Derailed; is an exhibition that brings this work into the unique, public art space of the Bridge Gallery at Tynemouth Station, in a powerful installation by members of North Tyneside Art Studio. Both informative and emotive, the journey of life with, and the history of, mental health is shown through the visual metaphor of a rollercoaster.
A collaborative poem by members of the art studio, this poem runs throughout the exhibition, exploring the themes of historic and lived mental health experience.
Heads & Tales
Everyone has abandoned me
And I have nobody to turn to for help.
The Anxiety was crippling.
Many a time I thought my heart would beat out of my chest.
An everyday task to the “well”, such as buying a pint of milk,
Can often require a heart as brave as a lion.
The worst aspect is the isolation.
How do you explain to the person next to you that you are, in fact, living in hell?
It’s easy to give up hope completely and sink into a very dark place.
The soul and will of an individual are only so strong
You find yourself having to suppress that of yourself that makes you, you
Take me as I am
Or leave me alone
Why should I change for you?
If you have been where I have
Then we are on the same page
We stand strong together
Our recovery goes hand in hand
When you do find “moments of reprieve”,
Hold them to your bosom
Try to make them part of your everyday life.
I changed every single day, mostly for the worse,
But sometimes for the better.
I didn’t believe them at the time,
But people said it would get better
And bit by bit, year by year… it did.
I miss the old me, but I am learning to love the new version.
That’s far more important.
We are NOT “different” or “sick”
We are HUMAN
Because our pain is inside us
It doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist
Everything feels like it’s a hundred times harder,
It’s like walking through thick mud.
However, the strengths we have despite our struggles are many
Creativity, thoughtfulness, perseverance, empathy, self-acceptance
The list goes on…and on
“We’re riding the rollercoaster together, but all our experiences and backgrounds are different. We are teachers and students, mothers and fathers, doctors, midwives, decorators and shop workers. We have no education or qualifications, we have masters degrees and doctorates. We have big families and we live alone. No one is immune from mental health issues. Anyone can find themselves on board the rollercoaster.”
The rollercoaster represents the turbulent highs and lows of living with mental health issues, but it also evokes the use of mental health as a vehicle for entertainment. From the 17th and 18th century public, who would pay to visit Bedlam Aslyum to look at the patients there, to the modern use of ‘crazy’ killers in movies, people suffering from mental health issues have been dehumanised for the enjoyment of the public.
All of the carts carry the black dog and a pair of semicolons, which are important symbols in the history of mental health.
The Black Dog
Ever since Winston Churchill popularised the phrase ‘Black Dog’ to describe the bouts of depression he experienced for much of his life, it has become the shorthand for the disease that millions of people suffer from, often in shame and silence.
A far more recent invention, the semicolon is used as a symbol that by those who are struggling with, or have suffered from attempts to take their own life, and is often used as a tattoo. It represents the continuation of life, as a semicolon is used when an author could have ended their sentence, but chose not to.
Each cart on the rollercoaster embodies an important period in the history of mental health, as reflected by those who would have, or have experienced those attitudes and treatments first hand.
14th-18th Century. Bedlam
For hundreds of years, the only solution to those experiencing mental health issues was incarceration or death. Bedlam hospital stands as the first and most infamous ‘hospital’ in the history of mental health, infamous for its brutal treatment of patients.
Late 19th to mid 20th Century. Experimental Treatments
As mental health treatments developed, numerous attempts to improve the lives of those incarcerated in asylums were made. The patients of these experiments would have been treated without consent or explanation, becoming guinea pigs for everything from having sections of their brain removed to being given extraordinary doses of hallucinogenic drugs. Some of the treatments that were developed during this time, such as Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT), where an electric current is applied directly to the patient’s head to trigger a seizure, are still used today, although in a much less brutal manner than originally applied.
20th and 21st Century. Medication
While some of the more brutal, experimental treatments have been left behind, medication has become a huge part of treating mental health and is a multi-billion dollar industry. With medications affecting individual patients in different ways with side effects that can range from irritating to life threatening, it can take years for the correct combination of medication to be found for an individual. Many people experiencing long term mental health issues are forced to make a choice whether to take a medication that may save their life by improving their mental health, but may also shorten it by damaging their physical health.
Late 20th and Early 21st Century. Community and Health Service Support
While medication continues to develop and be prescribed, the infrastructure of psychiatric and therapeutic care has been damaged by cuts to public services. A range of community and charitable organisations exist to help people experiencing mental health issues, but these are under incredible pressure to find funding to meet increasing demands due to the harsh cuts to NHS mental health services. For those living with mental health issues, this is contributing to feelings of isolation, a loss of safety, and lack of trust and hope for the future.
Today and Tomorrow
The lives of people experiencing mental health issues today are at a cross-roads. There is a drive for non-medical support, opening up the use of art, sports and other cultural activities to help people take self-responsibility for their own recovery. However, this drive is undermined by an increasing loss of medical support, benefit sanctions and hostile disability assessments.
What comes next has not yet been built. With a quarter of the population facing some form of mental health issue during their lifetime, it is for everyone, not just those who are currently facing mental health issues, to decide what the next stage of our mental health history will be.