Identity, culture, and belonging: bridging the gap between mental health and the arts
27 October, 2023
This blog post is by Isabelle Gallier-Birt, one of our inaugural Aggrey Burke Fellows.
Somewhere in the NHS…
Crouching in the corner of the patient lounge, I plug in the ancient CD player and fiddle with its controls. After much protest from the device, the CD compartment glides open, and I insert the disc. A 'Best-Of' compilation from the 1980s - a likely crowd pleaser.
Left in the capable hands of the OT, the room begins to fill; chairs squeak as they're dragged over the lino floors, and Lionel Richie echoes from the dusty speakers. As the hour goes on, between tasks, I poke my head around the lounge door, and see the sing-along in full swing.
Some patients know every lyric, some are nodding their heads and tapping feet to the rhythm, and others are just soaking it in. A couple of patients stand just down the corridor from the lounge entrance, not quite ready to enter the thick of the cacophony but seeming to enjoy the music from afar.
Occasions like this, experienced while working as a Nursing Assistant in old age psychiatry, are a reminder of the significance of the arts within the specialty and why its therapeutic value should be accessible to all. Reflecting on the intersectionality of mental health, the arts, and the Black identity has shown me that to perceive, create, and express art is a universal but also deeply personal experience.
“Marcus Garvey’s words come to pass”: artistic expression and Black Caribbean history
My grandparents emigrated to the UK from Jamaica in the 1950s as part of the Windrush Generation. The Caribbean has a rich tradition of art, music, storytelling, and cuisine as means of cultural expression. Migration to, and from, the islands has shaped the creative identity of the region.
The birth of reggae in Jamaica was an art form that transcended cultural borders and inspired artistic expression across subsequent generations. Reggae lyrics often address themes of social injustice, resilience, and personal struggles. The music provides a platform for individuals to identify and express their emotions and experiences, and some artists use their music to remind listeners of the colonialism and slavery that form part of Caribbean history.
One of my favorite reggae albums, 'Marcus Garvey,' released in 1975 by the group Burning Spear, exemplifies this concept. The album and the title track are named after Garvey, a National Hero of Jamaica and an influential figure in the Pan-African and Rastafari movements.
The album, much like Marcus Garvey's ideology, promotes a strong sense of identity and belonging. Feeling connected to one's cultural heritage and the broader community can have a positive impact on mental well-being.
The intersection of mental Health and the arts
To me, art is an expression of the human experience. Wider in scope than the typical mediums of paint, words, and music, our art is how we choose to tell our story. Whether this be the clothes we wear, our afro hair, or the traditions passed down from generation to generation, our experience is expressed through our art, and in turn, art enriches our experiences.
If art and expression are irrevocably linked, then we can assume that art is also a tool for expressing some of the struggles of the human experience: persecution, isolation, and loss. Like Burning Spear’s album, artistic tributes to home, history, and culture can be a soothing reminder of our sense of self and belonging in a rapidly changing world. This community support can be translated through more diverse art forms, such as cultural celebrations and religious ceremonies.
Fostering togetherness and collectivism through creative outlets was important for coping with the challenges of migration and the potential mental health challenges from existing in an often oppressive environment. The extended family networks formed by the Caribbean diaspora and the Windrush generation through music, food, writing, and sport are a poignant example of this.
The road ahead
Artistic expression bridges the gap between cultural identity and how we nurture our mental well-being. From a clinical standpoint, a willingness to learn about a patient’s cultural needs opens up unique and valuable avenues for healing and support.
As a future clinician, this Black History Month, I am glad to be reminded of the depth and resilience of Caribbean culture by both the abundance of art it inspires and the need to move towards a future in psychiatry where culture and identity are valued when providing care.
This post was part of our Black History Month content for 2023.