Thursday, 13 October 2016

We have power as creatives? What will you do?

Graphic by @MendoncaPen
World Mental Health Day on Monday 10th October was marked by the London and Home Counties branch of the British Psychological Society with an event at the London College of Fashion on Mental Health Issues in the Fashion and Creative Industries.  The evening was chaired by Dr Carolyn Mair, - CPsychol, AFBPsS. Carolyn was wearing both of her ‘hats’ for this event;  one as Subject Director  of Psychology at London College of Fashion and  the other as Chair of the British Psychological Society’s London & Home Counties branch
The diverse panel represented  both fashion, Caryn Franklin - MBE, MSc, Professor of Diversity in Fashion, Kingston University and Rosie Nelson, model and health advocate, and mental health professionals, Dr David O'Flynn - Consultant Psychiatrist at South London & the Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust with a special interest in the Arts and Dr Annmarie Rankin - Clinical Psychologist at Chelsea and Westminster hospital in the field of paediatrics and a former ballerina with, among others, the Royal Ballet Company.

Carolyn began the evening with an introduction to the issues that WMHD is aiming to address in promoting discussion around mental health and what we can do to support mental wellbeing. The extent of the problem specifically in the world of fashion was highlighted by a report in Dazed magazine which cited that whilst one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year that increases by 25 percent if you’re working in creative job.  The panel explored existing mental health issues in the fashion and the arts. The emphasis was on the toll that the demands of the fashion and creative industries can have on the wellbeing of employees and consumers.
The pressures of working the fashion industry with long hours, high expectations to create the next big thing, the stress of balancing the creative drive with the business of making money and the demands of being ultra-thin, were all touched on during the evening.

Four main themes emerged:
  •          Body image and eating disorders, the impact on models and the general population and similar issues in dancers. How can we change this?

“Stigma is all of us. In speaking out I’m standing up for others.”
                                                                               Rosie Nelson
  •          The relationship between mental health and creativity, the negative view of tortured genius. How art can help.

            “Art makes people better” Dr David O'Flynn
  •         What we as consumers of fashion can do, diversity, sustainability, outsider fashion.

           “Trends are Choices”  Dr Annmarie Rankin
  •          The potential for harnessing fashions power to enhance well-being both inside and outside the industry.

“We have enormous power to embolden and make a significant contribution.”                                                                                                    Caryn Franklin

Rosie shared how working in fashion as a model impacted her mental health, the constant pressure to be thinner, to question what was wrong with her body and how widespread the issue is. Many models are still children when they begin their careers, a time when they are forming their identity. Rosie has chosen to speak out about this issue but acknowledges how tough it is to do so. The panel attempted to come up with ways in which the tiny sample size that all models are expected to fit into could be changed. It would take the whole business of fashion to agree and there is no cohesive organisation that would be able to take that decision.
The fashion world’s responsibility for eating disorders and body-shaming was spoken about at length by the panellists. Annemarie commented that the fashion industry doesn’t cause eating disorders; they are more complex than this.  Body image is a fundamental part of our sense of self and our identity, the fashion world needs to recognise the responsibility they have to use this influence in a positive way and become part of the solution, rather than being the problem. Rosie is pushing for new laws in the UK to promote a healthier modelling industry.
Annmarie drew upon her experience as a young dancer to comment on the effects of body image and self-esteem.  Importantly she drew attention to the fact that BMI, and low body weight are not always indicators of poor mental health; it is possible to be a fit, emotionally healthy dancer and be very slim. Annmaire also shared positive stories of dance being utilised to assist well-being. There are many studies which support the role of dance to increase well\-being from both the position of participating in dance practise and as a spectator.
David is  Chair of the Adamson Collection Trust, Patron of Raw Material Music & Media, Co-Founder/Director of Innovations in Investigating Mental Health Population Outcomes (IIMHPO) and Trustee/Company Director of the Bethlem Gallery. He shared his views on the way in which creativity can be a contributing factor in recovering from mental ill-health, echoing Grayson Perry’s statement  that -

Art should not be viewed just as a visual culture but as an essential human process of self exploration and communication”

In order to develop innovative strategies to deal with the issue of mental health in the fashion and creative industries it would seem to make sense to harness our natural assets, to get in touch with our creativity and reassess our own measures of success. These are values that Caryn explained were fundamental to her role as ‘Fashion Agitator’ to reform from within the business of fashion. She advocates that consumers seize their power and shop according to the values that they hold. Perhaps if we squeeze hard enough; apply pressure from the bottom up with which trends we choose to buy into, and target those public figures who have the ability to change from the top down, a balanced diverse version of fashion will reflect the art of caring.  The many high profile fashion insiders who have experienced mental health issues could begin to challenge the stigma by sharing their  stories in a manner which shows that it is possible to recover and maintain a prominent position in the industry (of fashion). We hear of the tales of severe breakdown that has led to the sad deaths of some fashions most creative talents, such as McQueen, but where are the accounts of how it is possible to creatively traverse the inherent stress of the business of fashion?

On balance much of the discussion was around the negative impact of being involved in fashion. There was little dialogue as to how being involved in the arena of fashion can be a force for positive well-being, or how as an industry it is attempting to take care of the well-being of those inside. What can we do to create a culture of positive mental health that could well lead the way to other industries? As creativity is at the heart of what fashion’ is’ how can we apply those same skills to providing innovative imaginative interventions to provide solutions to the problems that working and studying in fashion appears to produce. And how does fashion education prepare its students to enter this ‘unhealthy’ world?
Questions from the audience followed the panel debate. The final question was how can we de-stigmatize mental health?” This gave David the chance to highlight how the way in which HIV treatment is now so effective that the physical impact from the condition can be mitigated where-as the damage done to individuals suffering from HIV, is because of the “fear of the other”; the impact on their mental health. That is shocking fact. We need to create a society where by openness takes away the power of the secrecy of mental illness, where we can talk about our own struggles without being scared of the repercussions. And the fashion and creative industries can influence this. 
This enlightening event highlighted that diversity is alive and kicking in the creative industries, we just need to tap into it in order to create well-being. The event was summed up visually with a creative and colourful graphic representation by Pen Mendonca. I feel that the strongest element in her depiction is “ART AN HELP”. It can and it does. Let’s celebrate that.
Reflecting on the event I recalled a comment made at a previous seminar at LCF, Tim Lomas, positive psychology lecturer at University of East London, issued a statement on the power of fashion to drive change:

“The most damaging thing is to think that a situation can’t be changed or challenged, and we can challenge and change situations through fashion.”

I left LCF on Monday evening with an even stronger desire to bring about change through the vehicle of fashion.

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