‘Illumination’ is a new series that explores the relationship between mental illness and creativity. I’m interviewing people engaged in art, music, theatre and many more creative avenues and inviting them to open up about their mental wellbeing and the way their struggles with mental health may inform their work.
If any of the issues discussed in this interview affect you, there are lots of online resources that can help. Visit Mind or the Mental Health Foundation for more information. Alternatively, you can call the Samaritans on 116 123 at any time of the day or night.
Words by Sophie Walker, as told to Harriet Williamson.
I’m Sophie Walker and work as an artist and mindful creativity practitioner. I started my business Attentive Art after I experienced post natal depression having relocated from one side of the country to the other five weeks before my second child was born.
In order to understand what was going on, I studied a course in psychology and mental health, followed by a course in mindfulness. I started making art again (I’ve been doing this for nearly 20 years) and applied some mindfulness techniques which had great results on and off the canvas. I’m now training to be a certified coach in creative mindfulness.
I have to say I’m okay these days. I have off days and a spot of anxiety now and then but nothing like what I used to. I don’t know where the boundaries between mental health and mental illness lie sometimes. Especially in children. I experienced eating disorders and anxiety before I was old enough to go to school.
Do certain behaviours indicate mental illness if they’re simply coping mechanisms to facilitate feeling mentally better? I had ongoing issues with depression and the behavioural patterns that tend to come with it, but I realised I was asking the wrong question.
Instead of asking ‘what is wrong with me?’ a more appropriate question is ‘what’s happened to me?’ When you understand this difference then healing becomes a possibility because we can stop blaming ourselves for things that probably were never our fault in the first place.
I write when I feel like it. I try to operate from a place of ‘how do I feel?’ rather than ‘what should I be doing?’ or ‘I have too much to do’ when really I can choose how much I have to do. So I apply a mindful ‘noticing’ of how I feel and what I’m doing. I make time each week for painting, drawing etc.
I also go out for walks and do yoga and swim when I can. I find it hard to slow down and try to notice when I need a break and at least stop and do something different.
Does mental health inform my creative process? I think in my case the two are combined. I am of the belief that any creativity is a form of therapy and it is highly necessary for everyone to have a creative outlet. It grounds me and calms me down.
I also have a tendency to think that everything I make or paint or whatever has to somehow be something I can sell. I only realised this quite recently (noticing) and now aim to enjoy the process for what it is.
Listen to yourself and trust yourself. Don’t listen to any thoughts about not being good or experienced enough. Experiment, find what you enjoy and do more of it while keeping on experimenting. Never compare yourself to others. It won’t help you to enjoy your creativity. Stop, look at what you’ve made. Smile.