The mental health epidemic, a nation in crisis? Improving community mental well-being through collective art and place making.

Theresa May, has vowed to change the way in which Britain tackles the issue of mental health, declaring that ‘mental health problems are everyone’s problems’. The number of girls reported to have engaged in self-harm has trebled in recent years and at any one time, 1 in 4 people are dealing with a common mental disorder. The cost of mental illness in the UK is currently around £150bn, with mentally unwell absent employees costing employers £9bn. May’s primary focus is on early intervention for young people by providing teachers with the necessary skills to recognise signs of poor mental well-being such as anxiety, depression and eating disorders.

A shortage of services for patients with mental health issues have seen antidepressant prescriptions rise to 60 million in 2017. Research by the UK eating disorder charity BEAT provided that 30% of patients had to wait longer than 18 weeks in order to receive treatment and that 40% of the respondents were told that there BMI was not low enough in order to receive immediate help.

Despite May highlighting that mental health problems have an impact on society as a whole, her suggestions for intervention and improvement are focused solely on the subjective experiences of individuals. The NICE guidelines for well-being stress the importance of group activity for alleviating mental health difficulties, and the importance of quality connections to friends, family and community.

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New community based approaches to improving the lives of the public have seen a dramatic impact on collective well-being of communities and individuals, through art and place making. ‘Wonderland: The art of becoming human’ explores the recovery of addicts through the process of art and photography in a collective group environment. The project took an abstract approach to recovery and was based on the notion of collective community. At the heart of the wonderland project was the notion that individuals have the right to feel and to be felt by other feeling people. By creating self-portraits the group worked with discomfort, vulnerabilities and pain, establishing a visual language learning to navigate life on their terms. Through use of the outward visual, the recovering individuals learnt to confront their internal distress as a group.

The results provided that each participant’s confidence had grown and that the self-portraits encouraged openness and established a collective sense of collaboration. The environment discouraged talking specifically about addictions but instead, about life and what it’s like to live. The medium of art built a trustful space and moved beyond addiction label. Working together had created a wholesome thought process, and each participant agreed that the shared recovery process had been beneficial, opposed to individual based recovery.

Linked to the concept of community is that of place making which can be understood as creating a sense of belonging by improving neighbourhoods and cities. Research has shown that place and how it is designed and operated, can have a significant impact on health resulting in issues such as obesity, toxins exposure, social isolation and depression. In 1948, the World Health Organisation identified health as more than just physical wellness but a state of “complete physical, mental and social well being”.

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Place making intends to create quality public spaces that benefit a communities overall health and happiness, by building on community assets and bringing people together with a joint purpose. In 2015 the Urban Land Institute released the “Building Healthy Places Tool Kit” which acknowledges when constructing urban areas the layout must facilitate social engagement, promote healthy food retail and provide high quality spaces for generational play and recreation. By establishing welcoming communal areas within cities, isolation of individuals can be reduced with new opportunities for interaction creating a feeling of social inclusion, improving mental wellbeing. Efforts to maintain a healthy environment for the public should not focus on the ‘built’ environment, but instead the ‘living’ environment.  Contact with nature has been proven to reduce stress and enhance cognitive and emotional development amongst adolescents. It has also contributed, alongside a sense of community, to a decrease in mortality amongst senior citizens. The pursuit of improvement of public wellbeing  and happiness must seriously consider the importance of place.

The Project for Public Spaces, highlights the importance of equity and inclusion in relation to place-making. They emphasise that place-making it’s self is not the end product, but the means to an end, and that its primary function is human connection. By involving those within a community in developing and improving space, individual needs and priorities can be met establishing inclusion and shared community ownership. In this sense, “cities have the capability of providing something for everyone, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody”.

Undoubtedly, a healthy environment impacts positively on human functioning and that a ‘place’ can enable an individual to flourish through social and natural stimulus which dictates all human behaviour and action.

All spaces constitute relationships and these relationships are fundamental for mental well-being. When people live in an inclusive community, social acceptance occurs. The evidence strongly identifies that by focusing on cooperative communities and the concept of place-making we can reduce the number of people developing mental health issues and improve the mental well-being of society as a whole.

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