I am in no doubt we are facing a mental health crisis in the UK and the pandemic has left many more of us alone, lonely and struggling to cope. Medication works for some people, therapy works for some people, but there is another option that can be life-changing, as I know.
I would rather the recent headlines had read “NHS could give creativity before anti-depressants, under new guidelines”. Why creativity? From my own personal experience I have had therapy (in various ways) many times over many years. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it did not, but what it never gave me was the power to look at my own health and wellbeing. It never put me in the driving seat.
Creativity (or social prescribing as it is also known) helped me in more ways than just teaching me how to paint. It gave me what I call skills for life. It taught me how to deal with any issue regardless of when it happened or how often it happened. Therapy only ever taught me how to get through whatever I was facing at that point in time. When I hit another issue, I was always back to square one and on the waiting list for the therapist again.
The waiting list is another important aspect of this story. On the same day I was put on a 19 month waiting list for a therapist, I saw a leaflet for an “art for wellbeing” class about 10 minutes from my home. I started that art class a few days later. Closer to home, more accessible and no waiting lists; it’s not hard to see why I favour this process.
I would not be here today if I had had to wait for that therapist appointment. Not to mention that the cost to see a therapist far outweighs the cost of something creative that happens in the community. The art class I did for just short of two years costs less than a years’ supply of the medication I was on at that point. If you add the therapists and specialists I was seeing, the costs run to tens of thousands of pounds.
When I talk of creativity I talk in broad terms: leisure, arts, dance, singing, cycling, football, knitting. Anything is possible, the remit is so wide it can potentially cover everyone. Having had many different types of therapy myself I know it isn’t a case of ‘one size fits all’ but whether it’s an art class or a football group the approach is the same. The individual can get as much from the session as they can or want to. It also puts the person in control, which was something I never had whilst I was in the mental health system. I was always the recipient of THEIR treatment, the art class was something I had chosen to do. This is a huge game-changer. The NHS wants more person-centred care and I believe this is the way to achieve it.
I am not naive enough to think this approach will solve everyone’s mental or even physical health issues – there are no limits to creativity – but while people are on waiting lists for therapy, why can’t we offer alternatives? Why can’t creativity be a first point of call rather than an afterthought?
When I walked into that art class, I was taking 21 tablets each day. I had been in the mental health system since I was eight years old. I have now been medication-free for ten years and out of services for six-and-a-half years. I have completed an MSc in mental health recovery and social inclusion, won several awards, sold more than 150 paintings and spoken at some very prestigious events.
My art class did more than teach me how to paint. It saved my life then it changed my life. I want that for others too.
About the Author
Debs Teale is an advocate of creativity in health following her own remarkable journey. She advocates creativity as an additional service to improve wellbeing and offering hope and aspiration. She has a passion to promote everyone having a voice and a choice in their own care, something she felt lacked in her own journey. Debs believes everyone has something to bring to the table, even if it is just themselves. She is a Trustee at the National Centre for Creative Health as well as a member of the Social Prescribing Network and Social Prescribing Academy. Debs is part of the our Spokesperson Network Programme.