As the mental health crisis escalates, Stuart Jeffries explores the case for making
‘I came to craft because I got ill,’ says Jono Smart. ‘It’s not too much to say it saved my life.’ Now aged 36, the Glasgow-based ceramist spent his early 20s working in advertising in London before retraining as a garden designer. ‘Advertising was a fabulous, if stressful, job involving lots of international travel, dining at the best restaurants and living in an exciting city,’ he explains. But then in his late 20s Smart collapsed into depression. ‘I was in bed for two years with undiagnosed bipolar disorder. I felt like an absolute failure after years of success.’
Therapy and medication helped, and Smart made fitful attempts to return to work, but what really turned his life around was attending pottery classes at Turning Earth studios in East London. What he did with clay was a metaphor for remaking his life. ‘I re-moulded myself, put myself through fire as it were, and came out as something else,’ he says.
Smart had already worked creatively in his gardening practice, but making with clay proved far more meditative. ‘Garden design was a different experience. With pottery I’ll sometimes start with 80 lumps of clay and it feels like a minute later that I’ve made 80 cups, scarcely realising what I’ve done because I’m so engaged in the process.’ He cites the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who named the concept of ‘flow’. ‘I think what he means is complete absorption in a task you’re competent at. I found that flow in pots.’
Smart has made a career out of what began as a medicinal pursuit, founding a studio five years ago in Devon before moving to Scotland, where he now lives – and often collaborates – with his partner, the woodturner Emily Stephen. He has amassed an Instagram following of 100k for his minimalist vessels.
For weaver Jan Bowman, the making process has provided a similar tonic, in her case for dealing with grief. She had been working on a weaving project called Murmuration, inspired by the thousands of starlings that darkened the sky overhead one day while she was walking her dog near her home in Wymeswold, Leicestershire. She had plans to submit it to this year’s Collect Open at the Crafts Council’s Collect art fair.
Then bad news struck: her husband David was diagnosed with malignant metastatic melanoma that progressed very quickly. ‘When the diagnosis came, I said to him: “I can’t apply. There’s no way I can make the deadline”. But he said “You will”. He was my number one fan.’ He declined swiftly after a course of immunotherapy didn’t work and died in October last year. Both Bowman’s mother-in-law and father-in-law also passed away in quick succession.
‘I couldn’t do much weaving in David’s last few weeks, so when I got back to the loom following his death, there was a lot of intensity of feeling,’ she says. She found herself weaving in 16-hour stints. ‘It got a bit manic. I found myself talking to David as I worked. Looking back, it was some kind of therapy. You get so tied up in the loom, the rhythm of making, that you lose track of time. It’s a very healing process.’
Stories such as these about the healing power of craft are more pertinent now than ever because of a radical shift in government policy. ‘For too long we have been fostering a culture that’s popping pills and Prozac, when what we should be doing is more prevention and perspiration,’ said health secretary Matt Hancock in a recent speech. He argued that spending money on encouraging us to play music, experience the arts and make craft can not only improve wellbeing, but save the NHS money.
This idea is termed ‘social prescribing’, whereby people suffering from problems such as depression, strokes, dementia or even social isolation will be encouraged to become socially involved, to visit museums and galleries, and to engage in hands-on activities, rather than (or in some cases as well as) being offered medication or therapy. ‘I see social prescribing growing in importance, becoming an indispensable tool for GPs, just like a thermometer or a stethoscope,’ said Hancock.
But this policy is viewed with scepticism by some, including Jan Bowman, who as a weaver and Loughborough University lecturer for 36 years, has conducted many projects in schools and hospitals. ‘I think the government has a lot to answer for, having stripped out arts and crafts from education syllabuses, clobbered adult learning and left people with learning difficulties high and dry,’ she asserts. ‘They destroyed the foundation we already had.’
‘There’s certainly a lot of cynicism that [the government is] just trying to do something on the cheap to solve the NHS’s problems,’ concedes Helen Chatterjee, professor of biology at UCL. ‘But there’s a groundswell for improving mental health with such initiatives.’
One reason for that groundswell is Chatterjee herself. In 2015 she founded the National Alliance for Museums, Health and Wellbeing, an initiative that aims to get museums and galleries involved in work with charities and voluntary groups to encourage patients, as well as Britain’s most vulnerable, poor and socially isolated people, to experience art and creative work. She cites a project by Dulwich Picture Gallery to engage residents at local care homes. ‘Museums and galleries didn’t really work that way before. They didn’t engage with charities or the voluntary sector. They often do now. We want to mobilise institutions and use skills that already exist but in a different way.’
For too long we have been fostering a culture that’s popping pills and Prozac, when what we should be doing is more prevention and perspiration
Chatterjee was also an expert witness to an inquiry led by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing, whose 2017 report, Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing, catalysed the change in government policy. Its website has an evocative illustration by David Shrigley of a patient tilting back their head with a drip from a bottle marked ‘culture’ falling into their mouth. Is a spoonful of culture and creativity what Britain needs to improve its mental health?
Perhaps. Chatterjee argues for the biopsychosocial benefits of all things cultural, including the work of museums, galleries, archives and heritage sites in enhancing quality of life, physical and mental health, wellbeing and social inclusion for older and disadvantaged adults, and people with dementia. Recent research published by University College London’s MARCH mental health network – formed in 2018, with members including the Crafts Council and the Museums Association – shows that engaging with visual arts can reduce reported anxiety, and visiting museums can protect against dementia’s development. UCL researchers have also found that crafts, painting, drawing or drama at age seven were associated with a lower risk of social and behavioural maladjustment in adolescent children.
If Britain does need a spoonful of culture, how does the government propose to administer it? As part of the NHS Long Term Plan, all GPs in England will be able to refer patients to community activities and voluntary services by 2024. They will be supported by 1,000 newly trained social prescribing link workers who will help to develop tailored plans and connect them to local groups. By 2024 NHS England says social prescribers will be handling 900,000 patient appointments a year. The idea is that Britain has more than one million so-called assets, including community gardens, allotments, care homes, leisure centres, volunteer associations, social clubs and community groups, and these can be harnessed to improve mental health as never before.
It’s not yet clear how much this will cost: a Department of Health spokeswoman says that the initiative will be backed by an extra £33.9 billion a year of funding into the NHS by 2023-24 – a real-term increase of £20.5 billion. How much of that will go to funding Hancock’s reform is not yet clear, nor does the government have figures yet for how much it expects to save the NHS as a result. And for all the health secretary’s vision of social prescribing as budgetcutting alternative to medication and therapy,
It is not certain whether GPs will see the matter the same way: quite possibly – in some cases at least – encouraging patients to take part in crafts will be complementary to, rather than replacements for, drugs and therapy.
Hancock gave an example of what he has in mind. A collaborative project between the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Hull’s stroke recovery service resulted in nearly 90 per cent of stroke patients feeling better after they learnt to play instruments and eventually performed in an orchestra. They suffered fewer dizzy spells and epileptic seizures, felt less anxiety and enjoyed improved sleep, concentration and memory, better morale and more confidence.
Is a spoonful of culture and creativity what Britain needs to improve its mental health?
The health secretary has so far said less about the role of crafts in this social prescribing revolution. He ought to, though, since the value of craft and haptic engagement for mental health is long established. At the dawn of occupational therapy in the late 19th century, basket-making was recognised for improving cognitive skills as well as physical ailments. During the First World War, men suffering from shell shock were often encouraged to make baskets (which were then used to carry shells), a craft that helped them to recover from what was called hysterical paralysis of one arm. Basketry was favoured because it aided the war effort, each item could be made in a short time, and its repetitive work was not just soothing but required the use of both sides of the brain.
Anthropologist Stephanie Bunn at the University of St Andrews has been working with Hebridean islanders on a research project called Woven Communities, celebrating basket-making traditions on Lewis and South Uist. It shows how this work held people together and gave them a common purpose after a sense of loss when basket-making stopped being commercially viable.
Bunn argues basketwork is hardly obsolete and has an important role for the nation’s mental health – now and, hopefully, in the future. She has been studying how its spatial and gestural practices are important for the development of cognitive skills. ‘In the case of stroke recovery, which I’ve been studying at Raigmore Hospital [in Inverness], basketwork can re-establish neural pathways and improve brain plasticity,’ Bunn explains. ‘Basketwork can do the same things for people with dementia, as well as trigger hand memories, which is something that I’ve been working on in a project in Lewis.’ This will figure in Bunn’s new book, The Material Culture of Basketry, which she is co-editing with Victoria Mitchell to be published by Bloomsbury Press, hopefully later this year.
Already then, crafts are improving mental health. Craft Club – a national network of making groups supported by the Crafts Council – recently conducted a survey, in which it reported that 29 per cent of members attended for therapeutic purposes. One such group is Woolly Wellbeing, a Liverpool-based weekly knitting and crocheting club, whose attendants have remarked on improvements its classes have made to their mental and physical wellbeing. ‘Joining the Woolly group has literally saved my life and allowed me to gain a sense of purpose and belonging,’ said one member with borderline personality disorder and depression.
Meanwhile, Craig Mealing – a 43-year-old ex-soldier from Essex who was diagnosed with PTSD after serving for 23 years – struggled with alcohol and became homeless. He tells of how getting behind the potter’s wheel on a two-week residential course with Combat Stress (the UK charity for veterans’ mental health) helped him turn his life around. ‘Working with clay is the ideal distraction to keep me off the drink,’ he says. ‘It’s hard to throw a pot with a can of Fosters in my hand. I find it relaxing and it helps to reduce my anxiety.’
Whether the wonderful things craft in Britain is already doing for the nation’s mental health can be replicated on a bigger scale is open to question, but it’s striking that the government may well be able to capitalise on the growing enthusiasm for participating in crafts. Its recent Taking Part survey found that amateur or everyday craft participation in England has grown by nearly 22 per cent in three years (from 19.7 per cent of people responding in 2014-15 to 24 per cent in 2017-18), with textile crafts such as embroidery, crocheting and knitting having the highest participation rates of all the arts – more than music and painting.
Certainly Matt Hancock argues for their potential in improving Britain’s mental health. ‘Social prescribing can help us combat overmedicalising people,’ he says, ‘dishing out drugs when it isn’t what’s best for the patient and won’t solve their problems.’ If the drugs don’t work, then – just possibly – craft could.