This piece was commissioned by Dolly Sen as part of her Guest Editorship.
In 2008 I tried to take my own life. It’s now 10 years later and I’m working with people in suicidal crisis and championing the positive benefits of creativity.
I had a difficult childhood that manifested in me developing mental health difficulties at around the age of 12. By my teens I was seriously unwell but discovered photography as a way to work through things that I couldn’t find the words for.
At 19, whilst studying for my Photography degree I tried to kill myself and ended up in a psychiatric hospital. The main thing that kept me alive was my connection to art. The act of making something had a profound therapeutic impact on me and I continued to process my difficulties through my photography.
Having something that I can rely on outside of clinical interventions has given me a sense of empowerment and agency to work through the complexities of life. After I came out of hospital I was drawn to the many abandoned asylums scattered across the UK, undertaking a 5-year project that helped me to understand my own experience of being in and out of services.
In 2008 I fell seriously unwell again, attempting to take my life. It was a series of events that can affect us all that led up to the traumatic act: the breakdown of a relationship, the loss of a job, financial difficulties. In the last decade I’ve finally been able to access the right treatment (which has been difficult in itself) and have dedicated my professional practice as a photographer to helping others with their own mental health difficulties.
I went back to complete an MA in Photography whilst I was also having intensive psychotherapy for 18 months. The work created then, and immediately after, helped me to explore the role of patient and clinician, using my extensive medical records, both as an archive (personal and institutional) and as a second skin. I became interested in the us and them mentality, and now regularly teach medical students about the space between patient and doctor, and the importance of slowing down and being present with a patient.
Working across a number of arts and clinical organisations I now work with vulnerable people by incorporating the arts into self-care. I’m currently working with Maytree, a suicide respite centre in London, in showing the stigma and impact of suicide, one of mental health’s biggest taboos. By creating a dialogue around suicide we can help to create safe and supportive spaces for people in suicidal crisis to talk about their feelings without fear of judgement.
I Want to Live, an exhibition and series of arts workshops surround suicide and bereavement, runs from 21st June – 12th October 2018 at the Free Space Project, London. Open: Monday – Friday, 8.30am – 6.30pm
Angela: “I started off as a volunteer at the end of 2006. It was so different back then. It wasn’t as busy. I was going to Mind at the time and was doing a computer course as part of my recovery. I said I wanted to volunteer somewhere and they actually talked about Maytree. What I liked about Maytree was that it was face-to-face and it was longer term. The fact that Maytree is about listening is key to me. I bring that from my past.”