CEO Update - From stigma to strength… through art and lived experience

This week I was delighted to launch an Art Exhibition in Canberra raising awareness of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). Part of BPD Awareness Week, the exhibition featured a range of artworks and installations created by people who live with BPD. People with lived experience, expressing themselves and publically displaying that expression.

The ‘From Stigma to Strength’, fits perfectly with our World Mental Health Day campaign this year, and is also fitting for those representing a condition which is only just emerging from the shadows of mental health care. A condition which has suffered from inadequate diagnostic tools, deep seated prejudices amongst mental health services that have too often considered BPD “untreatable”, under-resourcing and consequential lack of access to evidence based therapies.

What was most striking about the artwork on display was its diversity. Some pieces were intensely introspective, self-portraits and personal studies. Others were outward looking, embracing landscapes and the natural environment. Others again explored the supernatural.  Some were realistic, others abstract. Some dark and sorrowful, others bright and optimistic.

Speaking with one of the artists at the launch underscored for me the intensity of the artistic experience, but also reminded me of a broader lesson about lived experience.  As we reflected on her self-portrait, along with her family, the reality of creating art in the safety of a bedroom was quickly contrasted with the dangerous vulnerability of displaying that art in a public place for all to see… and judge.  As much as this may be part of a person’s ‘recovery journey’ the experience is none the less an intensive and personal one – a challenge that must haunt many artists throughout their careers.

But this experience also caused me to reflect further on what we constantly ask of ‘lived experience’ representatives in our pursuit of ‘co-design’ and proper partnership in policy and service design processes. We often ask people with lived experience to participate in processes, implicitly asking them to bring the deeply personal experience of mental illness out of the darkness, and to put it on display to be considered and judged by all and sundry.

Like the artists displaying their work, some are very new to the task while others have been on display for years. Still, it is an important reminder that intensely personal experiences require appropriate respect, safety and support.

We will never break down the stigma associated with mental illness (at the personal, family, community or political level) without learning from those who are prepared to live their experience publicly.

As we approach World Mental Health Day next week, many of our colleagues and friends will be asked to live their personal experience publicly.

Let’s be sure that we are receiving that vulnerability with appropriate respect, safety and support. Let’s also be sure that we are honouring that vulnerability with real action.  Action that moves from stigma to strength. Action that see sees those who experience mental illness leading the reforms that we all acknowledge will be needed to achieve our shared goal of mentally health people and mentally healthy communities.

Warm regards

Frank Quinlan, CEO Mental Health Australia

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