Thursday 28 March 2013

Mental Health Cat and Mouse

The day (6/2/2013) I spent in a simulated Mental Health ward was unforgettable, it was exhausting, intense and dramatic. I was the guest of Kingston University and psychotherapist Harvey Wells who had set up this opportunity for 50 students and 1 inquisitive artist. Over the next 6 hours the students were thrown into a 'live' ward environment, they had to think on their feet, diagnosing, helping and reacting to the 'patients' in their care.

As I arrive in the ward this morning instead of 'real' mental health patients I find 11 jovial actors all preparing for the day ahead. As the actors meet each other, a strong gallows humour develops, like a game of Mental Health poker, they guess, bluff and raise the stakes on one another by revealing their character's conditions and medication. As the 'live'  hour approaches they slowly get into character, disappearing behind one of the many blue screens. Their silhouettes still visible as they pace back and forth, talking to themselves. Some start to change their clothes. 'Sheila' explains to me that she has to wear her 'depressive cardigan' while 'Daisy' places so many scarves and brightly coloured necklaces around her neck, she looks quite the opposite of depressed.

The students come in and a Facilitator blows the metaphorical whistle and the ward is immediately a maelstrom of activity. I am in a tight booth with an agitated 'Jeffrey', he is frustrated that no one takes him seriously. He is soothed and listened to by the student. He calms down and explains a little about his life, his achievements, his aspirations.

Just out of the corner of my eye I snatch a glimpse of a white vision. A lady has entered the booth and is disrupting 'Jeffrey's' new found peace, by trying to get a message to God. Clad only in a hospital bed sheet and clutching a white dove, her hands shoot up and plead with her deity. A number of students converge to deal with the disturbance, but Georgina is on a roll and darts into anther booth, students scurry to contain this saintly whirling devish, and I am left with 'Jeffrey'. Unattended he opens a window, pauses on the edge of the sill, but luckily doesn't jump. Instead he's had enough and walks out of the ward.


I made my way between the booths, a voyeur and an artist who was desperate to catch all the action. 'Sandra' is abusive, she shouts at the other patients and threatens a student. Her left hand is entwined in her hair, turning repetitively, agitated. She hears voices saying abusive things, it seems that she has been abused herself. The brave students keep calm but suddenly there are more bodies in close attendance.

There are quieter interactions though. I come across 'Jane', she isn't saying anything but is obviously furious about her mother's care. She sways in her chair like a listing ship, an inner battle rages in her head. Her mother is in the cubicle next door, a charming lady called 'Daisy', she seems absent minded and continually searches for her glasses in her bag.

Sheila is the quietest of them all. She is rolled in a ball. Too scared to murmur the shortest sentence but fragments of a story emerge. Just 5 weeks ago she had a baby and now the waves of  despair are drowning her. Compassion from the student who is talking to her start to cast out that life-line.
Hopefully she'll grab it with both hands but this must be the frustration and sadness with some patients, if they choose to enter the deepest waters alone.

Much of the interaction between patient and student was detective work. On the whole it was a tremendous success, listening is a valuable commodity, not only does the patient unburden themselves but there is much to learn from a person's explanation or description. Occasionally things went wrong. I sat next to 'Jamie', he rocked back and forth clearly agitated. His eyes pleaded with the student in front of him, yet Jamie's mouth let forth the word 'I'm fine, I'm fine'. The student started to panic himself and fired off a series of rapid questions. Jamie was sweating and you could see he was serious trouble.

It was a poignant reminder that these simulations were sometimes about failure. Learning from the experience even if things go wrong, because now is the time to do so with Kingston University's Facilitators holding the safety net.


The actors who play these roles are giving the students clues through their back stories but also through their mannerisms. I was particularly interested in the way they used their hands. 'Jeffrey' held his like a church's roof,
tucked neatly under his nose, here was a procrastinator. 'Sheila' bit her thumb nail repetitively, her hands locked in rock solid fists.
'Julie's' hands propped up her heavy head while paranoid eyes darted nervously from side to side, 'Francis' couldn't trust her hands, they just had to be sat on, locked in place, just like her emotions. 'Leo's' waved uncontrollably in front of his chest and then caught an imaginary butterfly, holding it to his heart like a tender fleeting moment of positivity and warmth.

This whole drama on the ward only lasted 20 minutes. I hope I've been able to capture the range of emotions that were concentrated into this short period. The whole experience reminded me of a game of cat and mouse, the actors giving the students clues or flashes of their stories as bait. The students having to pounce on the information gleaned  before the patients retreated back into their dark holes once again.

We'll be exhibiting all the drawings and paintings from this brief art residency at The Frank Lampl Building on 25th July 2013. I've also been commissioned to make a short film/documentary of the experience and I'll let you know more info when its near completion.

Despite personally sailing close to some depressive winds I hope I never end up in a position like Jeffrey, Georgina, Sheila, Jane, Sandra, Daisy, Jamie, Peter, Julie, Francis or Leo, but if that happens, I know I'll be in safe hands.


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