Author Sanchita Islam on improving support for mothers experiencing post-partum psychosis

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Sanchita Islam is an artist, writer and film maker. She wrote Schizophrenics Can Be Good Mothers Too published under the pseudonym Q.S.Lam. From 27 June – 1 July her artwork featured at a special exhibition, Tomorrow’s Child at the Houses of Parliament, exploring the theme of early-years support for children and parents. Disability Arts Online caught up with her to get her opinion on the issue.

Sanchita Islam certainly keeps herself busy. Aside from being a mother of two young children and Director of Pigment Explosion − a non-profit arts organisation she established in 1999 − she’s currently exhibiting at the Houses of Parliament, has just delivered a speech at a House of Lords debate, and regularly blogs for Huffington Post. This is all whilst managing her mental health with no support from mental health services.

oil painting of a figure seated in a room inside a shell-like structure

Dadu © Sanchita Islam. Oil on canvas, 14×16 inches, 2012

She feels failed by the system, but is keen to use her experiences to improve outcomes for mothers experiencing post-partum mental health issues.

“In 2003, when I was diagnosed with my mental health condition I was never forewarned that I could be vulnerable to psychosis, not once. I didn’t even know what psychosis was, and when I was in a psychotic state at one point, those close to me, didn’t think I would come back to the real world.”

Islam experienced post-partum psychosis following the birth of both of her children and even when she was clear in communicating the support she needed to services, it was simply not forthcoming.

“I have a long-term mental health condition and yet I feel that my needs have not been met, that I have not been listened to, that my family was abandoned when I needed support from the mental health services the most.”

Islam has managed to avoid taking medication through a combination of sleeping well, good nutrition, exercise, breathing and other mind-diversion techniques, and through art.

“Art is my world; without it I would probably be dead. It is my ally, it is alchemy, it is so powerful, it is a force within me. The art makes itself, but I am like a machine churning it out, sometimes it is unhealthy the way I sit for hours at my desk not distinguishing between night or day, forgetting to eat or sleep − at least this is the case when I am on my own.”

“I am not advocating not taking medication, I don’t, but as I said the art is a substitute for medication and you can transform all this mental shit and pain into something beautiful that is edifying.”

a series of exquisite doodles drawn with pen and ink arranged on a white background

Baba 1 sketch book © Sanchita Islam. mixed media, A5, 2010-2012

Islam also involves her two sons in her art-making, from drawing them, to collaborating with them in making pieces.

“When I am with my children then they become part of my practice. We have made scores of paintings together; I am in awe of them when they paint. My son did his first scroll when he was two and I exhibited it in New York. Now I am doing a third scroll with the two of them about war, part of a series of 10 thirty-foot scrolls. When people see them they are incredulous − even I am.”

“Regarding this latest scroll, the children make the squiggles and set up the Lego battles scenes, I draw and paint these working within the landscape of their marks and then I juxtapose these images with actual images of war. I am asking the fundamental question how do innocent boys transition from making innocuous squiggles with their hands to wielding machetes and waging war?”

“It is my role to raise them into good, honourable men who are respectful towards women. I use art to communicate with them, to cement that bond. Since they were born I have been drawing them to keep my mind distracted, to dampen the noise and dispel the symptoms of psychosis that I was battling with. I still draw them when they sleep, it is very calming watching them, listening to them breathe and my pen connects with them like a second umbilical cord that can never be severed.”

four drawing portrait drawings of the artist and her children

Montage for Tomorrow’s Child © Sanchita Islam

A montage of some of Islam’s pieces was on display at the Houses of Parliament, as part of the Tomorrow’s Child exhibition organised by 1001 Critical Days, a coalition of policymakers, professionals and parents emphasising the importance of a child’s first two years of their development. Islam tells us about the work that was on display:

“One is an oil painting portrait of my first born son aged one and the other is a self-portrait. I created the first paintings when I was battling with strange ideation throughout my pregnancies, painting them while they were growing inside me helped me to stay connected somehow. The paintings show how vulnerable a foetus is and how the womb is a cocoon from the dangers of the outside world − it is probably the safest place for a growing baby.”

“The classical oil portrait is part of an ongoing series I am creating, one each year until they are both 18-years-old to show a child’s evolution from baby to man. And the self-portrait is also part of an ongoing series that I started when I was 11, again to show the changing psychological landscape over the years through my face, my eyes…each portrait is different, it won’t be finished until I am dead.”

After her experiences of psychosis in 2009 and 2010, Islam was asked to deliver an essay at a debate Pegasus Theatre, it turned out to be the embryonic stages of her book Schizophrenics Can Be Good Mothers Too.

“I wanted to write about what happened, but I was blocked, then slowly as I recovered I wrote a bit each day, breaking it down into essays. I sent the first three essays to my friend and mentor Stephen Fry, who I have known since 2008 and he encouraged me to continue and to get them published saying they were ‘brilliant’.”

The book was published in 2014, combining prose, poetry and artwork aimed at demystifying psychosis and expounding methods of recovery not dependent on medication and traditional psychiatric methods. It has had quite an impact, with Islam travelling the world sharing the insights contained within its pages.

“Globally, mental health is reaching epidemic levels and remains a massive taboo. To date I have spoken in Brussels, Burma, Bangladesh and Malaysia about maternal mental health, reading from my book. I am due to speak in Singapore next.”

“A woman from the US wrote to me and said, ‘I wish my friend had read your book because if she had maybe she would still be alive. She killed herself and her baby daughter.’ Hearing this was devastating. If I learn of another mother who has killed herself due to post-partum psychosis, I have failed in my campaign.”

photo of the artist wearing a top hat and smiling

Photo of Sanchita Islam. Image © Laurence Edney

Clearly, Islam isn’t averse to setting herself big goals and rather than become embittered by the lack of support she has received, she shows a steely determination to improve the situation. She is lobbying governments to improve their provision with concise guidelines on how mothers and their children can be helped. What does she think can be done?

“I know there are many good mother and baby units in the UK, but it is postcode lottery and not all women can access the care they need. Some women need longer-term support. Mother and baby units don’t exist in many parts of the world including some of the global regions I have campaigned in. What does a Bangladeshi woman suffering post-partum psychosis in a village do? If education starts at a grassroots level the tide will change.”

“Kindness, compassion and listening can go a long way when dealing with mental health issues. We need to work together to reach as many vulnerable women as possible and if all mental health care experts do their bit to educate and forewarn women at risk it will make a profound difference.”

“Psychosis is like having a hammer to your brain, it leaves you shattered and your mind a pile of rubble, recovery is long and arduous, we need to try, if we can, to stop psychosis happening in the first place and protect all mothers across the world and the mental health of tomorrow’s and today’s children.”

Tomorrow’s Child featured in the Upper Waiting Hall in the Houses of Parliament until 1 July 2016. Schizophrenics Can Be Good Mothers Too is published by Muswell Hill Press and is available here.