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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

The Art of Psychiatry

Ashleigh Squire is studying Intercalated BA in Medical Humanities at the University of Bristol.

"Patients need to be heard"

London Psychiatry Trainee Conference A tube strike and a bomb scare hardly provided a promising start for a successful but despite various setbacks, the day was exciting, thought-provoking and fun.


The event was entitled “The Art of Psychiatry” and after an introduction by Dinesh Bhugra, conference speakers ranged from the artist Gemma Anderson and the writer Will Self, to Ruby Wax and Judith Owens who both performed their two-women stand-up/musical comedy show, Losing It. Losing It is Wax’s commentary on her own mental illness and how her desire to become famous was her ‘downfall’. She has controversially claimed that the desire to become famous is an illness in itself, and describes her own experience of this, whilst musing about our ambitious human nature and how we are always looking for something that we never quite find. This was interspersed with haunting yet humorous songs from Judith Owen. Both comical and moving, the performance was very entertaining – a perfect example of the different perspective the arts bring to psychiatry.


Portraits: Patients and Psychiatrists by artist Gemma Anderson Wellcome Trust Arts Award projectGemma Anderson’s artworks were beautifully intricate and delicate etchings of psychiatrists and patients from psychiatric hospitals in South London. The prints were not labelled, meaning that psychiatrists were indistinguishable from their patients, highlighting the universality of mental ill-health. She interviewed each person and the portraits incorporated representations of objects that carried meanings for the subject, together with medicinal herbs used in psychiatric medications. 


Another well-known and respected guest was writer Will Self, who began his career writing fiction and has recently published a ‘fictionalised memoir’. Self’s readings discussed his own experiences of mental illness and theories of psychiatry as social control, ideas shared by Michel Foucault and R.D Laing. The day was rounded off with a plenary chaired by Dr Tim McInerny, involving some of the day’s contributors, including the playwright, Nell Leyshon. Three members of Nell’s creative writing group for service users performed some of their own fantastic poetry, providing powerful and emotive accounts of anger, suicide and hope. A common theme resounded throughout: that patients need to be heard. The arts, be they poetry, film, graphic novels or music can aid both patients and doctors in addressing this need. They can help patients cope with their illness and help us as professionals to begin to understand their experiences.


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