Blog: Mental Illness in the Creative Arts


Dust is currently on a sold-out run at Soho Theatre, a hugely impressive one-woman show where we follow the ghost of a woman who has just committed suicide as she witnesses the grief and trauma she has caused on friends and family she left behind. It sounds like a tragedy but some damn fine writing by Milly Thomas turns this on its head – the main character is wholly unsympathetic, spiteful and cruel, and she blends this with scenes of comedy and trauma.

But as I mentioned in my review, Milly gave an impromptu speech at the end of the show, willing us to speak more openly about depression and mental illness as doing so will save lives. And I have been thinking about this ever since, not because I disagree with her – far from it – but because I feel there’s so much more we can do.

Depression and mental illness are increasingly common subject matter in wider cultural discourse, and that’s great. But I think we still have a long way to go, both in the creative arts and in bringing about effective change, and that really hits home every time I see that advert running on TV. You know the one, they’ve each got a post-it note on their foreheads with ‘bulimia’ or ‘anxiety’ or ‘agoraphobia’ on it and they’re trying to guess what they have. Only the questions are pointed such as, ‘am I to blame?’. Only it’s the last questions that catches me every time. ‘Would it help if I told my boss?’ to which I’m always shouting, ‘hell, no!’

Because it wouldn’t, would it? If you have a job and a boss where you could – and do – then all props to you but for so many others it remains a ‘hell, no!’ Getting and keeping a job in this uncertain economy is hard enough as it is without giving your boss one more reason to move you out. And I cant imagine people willingly fronting up this knowledge at the interview stage in the hiring process. I mean, god, we all need to make rent, right? So why make it even more unlikely to get a job in the first place.

You see, we’re not at that stage yet. It might be OK for royalty to start opening up about depression, but they aren’t struggling for connections and support. I appreciate them talking about it but we’ve still a long way to go before the rest of us who live precariously can follow suit.

And this is where the creative arts come in. We can lay that foundation, we can do that groundwork. We can create safe spaces. Only as I watched Dust, I realised that its depiction of an unlikeable, nuanced central character was comparatively fresh, and therefore indicative that we still are only scratching the surface on this subject.

In many ways, it reminded me of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation, the seminal 1990s memoir that took the same approach, ferociously examining mental illness in an unapologetic bare-all fashion, fully committing to displaying the ugly side of some mental illness – the narcissism and the self-pity – as well as the heartfelt.

And it has been books that have largely paved the way in this subject matter, from Sylvia Plath to Matt Haig, including such famous works as Girl, Interrupted, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and A Long Way Down along the way. But that’s all that really spring to mind – most other books are self-help. But nevertheless, it is books, (and their subsequent movie adaptations) that have led the way.

For me, theatre hasn’t really focused on this as much until recently. You can point at famous plays in the canon all you like but when people answer me with ‘Hamlet’ I want o remind them that madness is not the same as depression. And to put them in the same catch-all bucket is concerning.

Rather, I look to recent work such as Dust, Anatomy of a Suicide, Every Brilliant Thing and Fake It Till You Make It, as well as Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis. And though it’s only a short collection, the emotional variety and approach is impressive – from the heartfelt and life-reaffirming, to the terror and the trauma.

The fact that these are all contemporary works shows the level of interest and need to explore this subject matter. Indeed, emphasising that is the fact that the opera adaptation of the oldest play in that list – 4.48 Psychosis – is returning to Lyric Hammersmith next month.

But I certainly see promise in theatre’s response to mental illness. Take, for instance, Snapper Theatre’s recent production of Lobster which ran at Theatre 503 earlier this year. Here, depression was a key factor for one of the characters, but here it wasn’t placed centre-stage as the main subject matter. Rather, it was allowed to shape and colour a character’s response to a deteriorating relationship. The element of normalising depression interested me. How it wasn’t treated as exceptional or a deviation, but a norm.

I felt the same way about the treatment of PTSD in Mike Bartlett’s Game, which I saw at the Almeida. Again, it is the symptoms that are shown, though the cause of the trauma itself is left a little hazy.

Melancholia is never far away in ballet, but I’ve seen efforts in contemporary work to interrogate mental illness specifically too. A recent reworking of Cassandra at the Linbury Studio in the Royal Opera House (God, how I miss that stage…) is a good example.

The visual arts is a little more tricky to consider as few artists in this line of work like to be too “on the nose.” Depression and mental illness has been familiar territory for famous (and non-famous) artists for centuries so I suppose there is a multitude of artworks that could be considered to examine this subject matter.

As for specific images, it’s hard to look past Munch’s The Scream. Yet this is a very anguished, raging painting. As we know, depression takes many forms and many sufferers feel more flat and numb, rather than a torrent of reds and oranges. Paula Rego completed a recent series of works on the subject, which certainly have a more reflective, dejected tone.

So, there’s promise, for sure. But the fact that I can condense much of what the creative arts has explicitly offered on depression into one short blog means that there is still much more we can do. Given that approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year, this is no marginal issue. There is an audience out there willing creatives to talk about this subject more, in order that society itself can stop compelling so many to bottle it up – with all the terrible consequences that can bring.

As ever, if any more suggestions come to your mind, please share them…

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  1. Posted by MrsGeek, at Reply

    Thanks for this. Definitely plan on trying it!!

  2. Posted by glora, at Reply

    thanks for sharing with me in this 🙂