The National Gallery mental health audio tour: a year on
by Guest Author on 15 Oct 2020
As the Covid-19 pandemic continues, it is important that people look after their mental health. The theme of this year’s World Mental Health Day is ‘mental health for all’. In the light of these two things, we talk to Dr Helen Fisher, Reader in Developmental Psychopathology at King’s College London, to look back over a mental health initiative that began on World Mental Health Day last year to see what impact it has had.
A year ago, a mental health awareness audio tour was launched at the National Gallery in London. The 40-minute tour invites gallery visitors to look at certain artworks and rooms through the lens of mental health, while also listening to young people talk about common myths around mental health.
The tour is the result of a collaboration between researchers from King’s College London, the McPin Foundation, young people with experience of mental health issues, National Gallery staff and Young Producers, and Antenna International. It was funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).
Launched on World Mental Health Day last year, the tour is still live, and you don’t even need to be in the Gallery to see it – it’s accessible online and via your smartphone. Over 2,500 accessed the tour in the first six months, with 80% of visitors being from the UK and the other 20% from around the world. The tour also featured in an episode of BBC Radio 4’s All in the Mind.
Dr Helen Fisher, Reader in Developmental Psychopathology at King’s College London and the tour project lead, says the project has been a great success. “It has gone incredibly well, largely due to the involvement of young people with lived experience of mental health issues.”
A group of nine young people between the ages of 16 and 25 collaborated with the team on the audio tour. They attended several workshops, contributing their ideas and voices into the project. Fisher thought it was important that the young people decided what direction the tour should take and what content to include. It is this, she thinks, that made the tour so successful. “They drove the idea of the tour being centred around the myths that they feel still exist around mental health. They shaped it and wanted to say why those myths are wrong. And that really increased the authenticity of it – it was driven by real experiences, rather than by an academic or through an outside perspective.”
Eleven artworks or rooms feature in the tour, touching on topics such as ‘People are destined to develop mental health issues from birth’ and ‘Mental health issues are a sign of weakness’.
When asked for an example of how this worked in practice, Dr Fisher says: “well, for instance, the tour informs us that creative workers are three times more likely to suffer from mental health issues. However, the myth of the tortured artist is a harmful one, which the tour discusses through the work of Vincent Van Gogh. Why is the myth of the tortured artist harmful? Because it fuels the false idea that mental health issues are necessary for creativity, which may stop creative workers seeking the help they need.”
Dr Fisher also says that feedback on the tour showed that many of the visitors felt more compassionate towards people with mental health issues as a result of undertaking the tour and said they would now feel a lot more comfortable talking to people with mental health issues.
“People didn’t find it distressing or difficult and it didn’t make them feel uncomfortable, which is great, because when people find something uncomfortable, they don’t tend to engage with it.”
The respondents said they also enjoyed thinking about the art in the gallery from a different perspective.
While Dr Fisher is pleased about the positive feedback from visitors, it’s the feedback from the nine young people that really stands out for her. “One of the impacts I hadn’t anticipated was the feedback from young people involved in creating the tour. Many of them described that it had a very positive impact on them. It gave them a sense of purpose and they found it empowering to create something based on their own experiences to inform the wider public about mental health issues and challenge current misconceptions. They also said they learnt a lot from each other, such as how people experience mental ill health in different ways”. She hopes the myth-busting audio tour they have created together will begin to break down the stigma that still surrounds mental health so that everyone feels able to reach out for help when they need it.