Mental health special 3: Whitchurch project frees up creativity

Phil Carradice on the outstanding quality of writing from within the asylum

There is a quote, supposedly written by Graham Greene, from the film The Third Man. It goes something like this, “You know what the fellow said: in Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had murder, warfare, bloodshed and mayhem. They produced Leonardo da Vinci, Michaelangelo and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had 500 years of brotherly love, democracy and peace. What did they produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Simplistic, maybe, possibly even something of a cliché. But it remains a truism. Out of chaos, out of confusion, out of intense pain and suffering, you do often get creativity of the highest order. And freeing up such creativity was perhaps the main aim of the Whitchurch Project, a creative writing programme that was established by Academi (now Literature Wales) and funded by Cardiff and the Vale Health Trust almost three years ago.

Spotlight on Mental Health

Following last week’s revelation that Catherine Zeta Jones has suffered from bipolar disorder, we continue our series of articles on the experience and treatment of mental illness in Wales. In the final contribution tomorrow Elin Jones describes how her experience of dealing with her husband’s schizophrenia led her to become chair of the Welsh mental illness charity Hafal.

The Project was intended to give a voice to people who had some connection with Whitchurch Hospital in Cardiff. It was originally intended to mark – celebrate would be altogether the wrong word – the life and, as was then intended, the demise of the old Victorian hospital. Since then things have changed and plans for a different service, including a newer and smaller hospital for people with mental health problems, have been shelved. For the moment at least Whitchurch will remain – and so, too, will the Project.

Briony Goffin and myself were appointed as the writers to lead the Project. Over the past three years we have run workshops, talked to countless individuals and worked both within the hospital and outside. We have helped dozens of people to create poems, stories and pieces of descriptive writing. Sometimes that writing has been directly related to Whitchurch. At other times it has been about their feelings – feelings about the hospital, about their situations and about life in general.

We have worked with current service users, past patients, staff (and ex-staff), members of the general public, anyone who has expressed an interest in mental health issues. While the hospital, now over 100 years old, was at one time regarded as a centre of excellence, these days people tend to fall into two camps – those who regard it as a sanctuary or, literally, an asylum from the pressures of daily life; and those who regard it as an out of date dinosaur where the treatment is basic and limited.

We have made no judgements. We were clear from the beginning that we wanted writing that ranged right across the spectrum, critical or positive. The important thing was to produce writing, to help people who otherwise have only limited opportunity to create original pieces of writing. Such writing not only validates the experience but also the individuals themselves.

On a personal level several things have emerged from the Project. First has been the range and quality of creative ability in the people with whom we have worked, be they service users or staff. And it’s not just the quality of the work, it’s also the willingness of the writers to share their creations. This has, quite simply, been astounding.

I have been amazed at the work produced, work of a consistently high standard that evokes a response in any reader; work of integrity where the writer is able to lay bare a whole range of emotions; work that catches at the heart strings but which is also hard-hitting and realistic.

All behaviour has meaning and what has clearly emerged is the wide range of emotions that drive or fuel that behaviour. There is a lesson here for anyone who attempts to help people with mental health problems. Yes, of course the behaviour or the symptoms require attention. Yet in order for any real and lasting change to take place somebody, at some time, has to look below the surface and deal with the feelings, the needs and wants, that drive that behaviour. In a small way, that is what the Whitchurch Project has tried to do, by enabling feelings and emotions to be spoken or written about.

Mental health treatment – and hospitals like Whitchurch – still retains a stigma that is certainly not present in other areas of health care. That is something else that has emerged during the past three years. If we in Wales wish to  be at the forefront of care and treatment in this field then we need to change the attitudes of so many members of society. And we will not do that by simply retaining old Victorian hospitals where we can dump people who are ‘different’. Or by treating the symptoms rather than the cause of illness. Of course, places like Whitchurch have a role to play but we need a whole range of services or facilities – a tool box of resources – that can be dipped into as and when necessary.

And my lasting image of Whitchurch? Those endless corridors that run across, through and around the body of the hospital like trenches on the Western Front. Quite frankly, they terrified me when I first saw them. When the old Whitchurch Hospital is finally dispensed with I just hope the new institution will not burden itself with such infrastructure.

Phil Carradice is a writer and broadcaster, lead writer for the Whitchurch Project. If anyone is interested in writing about their experiences and impressions of Whitchurch Hospital – as a service user, as a member of staff or simply as someone who passes the place on the bus each day – feel free to contact the Project. Send your piece to [email protected]

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