Using creativity to help young people with mental health illnesses

“Young people don’t always have the language to describe what’s going on for them”

creative:tandem is our multi-artform programme empowering children and young people who have a serious mental health illness. For four years, we have been delivering projects at Snowsfields Adolescent Unit at Maudsley Hospital in South London. Our professional artists have been using creativity to help young patients develop their artwork and social skills, a creative means of increasing self-expression, self-esteem and confidence.

After a short pause during the COVID-19 pandemic, the project resumed this year over the Easter holidays via our Create Live! delivery mechanism over Zoom.

We spoke to Dionne Monarch, Lead Occupational Therapist Inpatient CAMHS and Day Patient Co-ordinator at Snowsfields, and Charlotte Ellis, Occupational Therapy Apprentice, about their work at Snowsfields, the value of creativity for the young people on the ward, and their experiences of Create.

Who do you work with?

Charlotte: We work with young people aged 13 to 18, with a range of diagnoses and symptoms. We often have admissions who have attempted to take their own life and feel like they can’t control those urges. We have young people with symptoms of psychosis, who may be experiencing delusions or unseen stimuli, and some with really low mood – very low depressions, lack of motivation to eat, lack of motivation to get up. We also have young people who are admitted with enduring manic episodes, and others with OCD-like symptoms. They come to us when they can no longer continue as normal and need a break for some treatment.

“In creativity, the young people are given so much choice to embrace”

Dionne: At any one time, we don’t necessarily know who’s going to come through the door. They’re often the most unwell young people that you’ll come across, because they need to be in hospital. They might come against their will. These days, we see a lot more self-harm, and suicidal young people, things like eating disorders, OCD; and young people who struggle with relationships, who have often had a lot of trauma in their life.

A bracelet made by a young person at Snowsfields during a Create project

How does being creative benefit them?

Dionne: I have worked with adolescents for about 21 years now, so I’ve seen a lot of young people over that time. I noticed very early on how creative they were. With young people, they don’t always have the language to describe what’s going on for them. They don’t know how to put it into words. But often they can do it through a creative route. The more tools you give them to be able to express what’s going on, to talk to you about what’s going on for them, the better.

Charlotte: Art groups are always really popular on the ward. There’s less expectation involved, as opposed to having a very formal conversation about how they’re feeling. When using materials like clay – we’ve done Create workshops with clay before, and jewellery – it’s very sensory orientated. They might not even create something at the end of it, it’s just about using the materials, and experimenting with them and feeling them in your hand and having a new experience. For somebody who is struggling to focus, it can be really centering. It can also bring on a huge sense of achievement when they do complete something. When they learn a new skill. The ward can be quite a routine and confining place: we ask the young people to stick to a schedule: you wake up at this time, you have medication at this time, you eat at this time and you eat the option of food we’ve given you. A lot of choice is taken away from them. But in creativity, they’re given so much choice to embrace.

“For somebody who is struggling to focus, being creative can be really centering”

Dionne: Each year we’ve had about five Create projects over the holiday periods. The holidays when you’re in hospital are really long: you’re stuck in hospital and all your friends are outside doing nice things. So the Create projects are ideal because we can offer them something a little bit special. When we get offered things like this, we jump at them. We have a regular programme that we provide, but it’s always special when you can add things to it, and work with professional artists. Someone coming from the outside and offering them some expertise really adds to their experience.

What did you get up to during the creative:tandem project this Easter?

Charlotte: It was a four-day project and, because of the pandemic, we had the artists on a big projector screen with two iPads at either end. We did something different every day. We did a paper project at the beginning, where it’s one picture on one side and one picture on the other side. This was really fun, because it allowed a lot of freedom. We had a young person who just wanted to draw and draw and draw and draw. This is the first group he came to on the ward, and everyone was really impressed with how long he could sit down and focus on just drawing.

Read this case study

On the second day we decorated tote bags with spray paint and stencils. Some of the young people were very measured, and some got very experimental with all the materials. It was really nice, they had opportunities to be creative in different ways and how they wanted to do it. And the artists were really good at allowing them to express themselves, which is really key in an environment where lots of people struggle with lots of different symptoms.

The next day, we made sketchbooks, and the young people were allowed to fill them with whatever they wanted. You don’t often get given a notepad and told you can fill it in one day. So they enjoyed that.

On the last day we did weaving, which was really cool. It was a brand new skill for a lot of the young people. And quite a delicate one. This was really great. When the session was over, some of the young people stayed for another hour, and kept weaving. One of our young people really took that on and continued to do it.

An example of weaving during the Easter creative:tandem workshop

An example of weaving during the Easter creative:tandem workshop

What do you think about Create’s work?

“Having professional artists come in and share their skills makes our young people feel special.”

Dionne: I think Create is amazing, I really do. I have three organisations that I would never not want to be in contact with: The Young Vic, Hospital Rooms and Create. They’re my top three I’ve ever worked with in my 21 years. To be able to work with Create, it gives us something to look forward to, it transforms our programme, it takes it to another level. I don’t worry anymore about the holidays, because I know we’re going to be doing amazing things. As an organisation it’s just so well run and managed. I always have trust in Create, I know that everybody’s well trained and very professional. It means that we can relax a little bit because we know that Create is going to take the lead, and it’s going to be really high quality. And we know that the young people are always going to engage with it.

Charlotte: It is so valuable, having professional artists who come in and share their skills with our young people. It makes them feel special. We have so many young people with aspirations of being creative or having careers in the creative industry. By meeting artists who are making a career out of it, and who really love it, they see it as something that they can accomplish themselves. The materials we get are really important too. That might sound like a small thing, but our budget is really small. Being able to offer young people quality materials, and a lot of them, so they can do more than one – if they want to make more than one pot in a day, they can, they can make four or five. It just shows them how valued they are.

Read two case studies from our creative:tandem project

Read an interview with Dr Richard Corrigall from Snowsfields

creative:tandem is supported by:

John Horniman’s Children’s Trust
The Fitton Trust

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