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It was only at the end of the 20th century that the assumption that there is no health without mental health emerged globally. Yet, despite significant improvements in approaching mental health as a universally recognised human right, its full realisation still depends on the achievement of parity between mental and physical health, in the access to timely and high-quality care, as well as increasing social inclusion programmes and rights-based treatments. People suffering from mental illness and other mental health problems often face stigmatisation, discrimination or marginalisation as they are perceived as the direct product of their disorder.
The disruptions caused by measures aimed at countering the spread of the COVID-19 have brought mental health to the attention of a wider public, highlighting all nuances of health that we need to live well, including mental and socio-economic well-being.
Mental illness has also been often related to creativity and art making and continues to be a subject of extensive research, even though many questions regarding the relation between artistic expression and mental health remain unchallenged.

In this series, we feature examples of great writers, songwriters and visual artists who through art have somehow coped with their mental ill-health or whose experience of mental suffering has significantly influenced their art and creative process or has become a subject of their work.

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Literature has always been a major tool of exploration of the mind, incl. mental (ill-)health, through the examination of its most hidden fears and desires, the surreal, painful and absurd products of imagination. We have chosen 3 artists who with their have broken through the walls of preconception to disclose a universe still mysterious and stigmatised, that of “folly”, its inner dimension, its treatment and perception in society.

Virginia Woolf suffered from mental ill-health throughout her life, also as a consequence of childhood trauma. She was part of the “Bloomsbury Group”, a circle of Modernists who wanted to push the limits of representation of reality. Woolf manages to use the visions of her mind explore the self through innovative prose. Her creation transforms her mental struggles into a fiction that plunges the reader in a visionary confrontation with inner life. In a time where psychological support was not as available as today, Woolf’s mental suffering was ultimately stronger than her writing and tragically brought her to the decision of taking her own life for fear of losing her ability to make art.

Antonin Artaud spent his final years in a psychiatric asylum. His work confronts stereotypes rooted in the society he lives in. His Theatre of Cruelty challenges the numbed audience by awakening all of its senses and fights against the idea that culture is different from civilisation. When discussing “madness”, Artaud is very critical of psychiatry and medical treatment, in particular electro-shock, as well as how society treats mental disorders. In his essay on Van Gogh he highlights the hypocrisy and fear that create the stigma against mental health suggesting that the artist was “suicided by society”.

In “En Bas” (Down Below), surrealist artist Leonora Carrington illustrates her experience of “being insane”. In 1940, deprived of her lover Max Ernst, she is forcibly sent to asylum to tackle a crisis. Between autobiography, auto-analysis and narrative “En Bas” is a therapeutic act for the writer herself but importantly provides the reader with a first-hand account of the lived experience of being locked-up.

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Today we’ve picked a few musicians and songwriters who have used their songs to talk about experience of mental distress, the search for therapy as well as the limits and problems of certain forms of treatment.

In “To Pimp a Butterfly”, Kendrick Lamar takes the listener through the lowest of the rappers’ states of mind. In the track « U » we are plunged into a mental conflict where the dark side of the self takes the lead in spitting out all what’s wrong, perpetuating a feeling of distress, blame and anxiety. But in this album Lamar shows us both sides of the coin, the endless war between the inner God and Satan and in the track “I” the brightest side rebalances the conflict: “In front of a dirty double-mirror they found me/ And I love myself”.

In The Who’s legendary album “Quadrophenia” Pete Townshend tells the story of a young working-class mod from Brighton. Split between four personalities, Jimmy lives a life of disillusion and is constantly tormented by what he perceives as a series of continuously failing attempts to find his (real) self, he doubts about his self worth, feels like a helpless loser and is often rejected by his peers. The track “The Real Me” recounts a relentless search for approval and help by others to find and see the true self: Can you see the real me, Doctor? Can you see the real me, Mama? Can you see the real me, Preacher?

On different occasions, talented singer @florence from Florence and the Machine has opened up about her inner struggle with mental health issues such as eating disorders and addiction. In “Hunger”, the song lyrics are autobiographical and recall Florence’s dark times during which she denied herself nourishment and fell into a vicious circle of isolation and self-loathing. Rejecting the stereotype which pictures rockstars as self-destructive hedonists, she told Vogue UK that “to self-crucify in the name of art always means that the art stops, and another voice is lost. At this time in our history, it has never been more pressing to have as many voices singing as we can.”