In 2020, Maternal Mental Health Scotland were successful in receiving a grant from the Perinatal and Infant Mental Health fund. The bid sought to bring together the voices of lived experience from across Scotland, to explore experiences of perinatal mental illness and the service provision available. The participatory arts project led by Elaine Connell, recruited from within the experts by experience reference group, forming a cohort of twelve participants in total (including Elaine), two of whom later chose to step down due to personal commitments. The group met online each month, providing a safe space for open and honest discussion about experiences, and generation of creative ideas which could be later developed into a visual response.
Each participant was provided with a creative kit of art supplies, with guidance on how to utilise the materials. Over the course of the project a body of work was developed using various media, including creative writing. The original aim was to display the work as a physical exhibition, which could potentially have toured the health boards around Scotland raising awareness of the need for improved perinatal services. Due to the ongoing impact of the Covid pandemic, it became apparent in early 2021 that a physical exhibition could not be planned for anytime soon. With the annual maternal mental health awareness week approaching, it seemed like a good opportunity to display the work virtually by hosting an online exhibition instead. And so, in May 2021 the exhibition Invisible Truths was launched online to mark the beginning of the week-long campaign. The exhibition received high acclaim from experts working in the field of perinatal mental health, and was viewed over 1000 times in the first month.
The exhibition is a visual representation of the challenges faced by real mums in Scotland, who have bravely shared their stories, in the hope that it may act as a campaigning tool, and drive future service provision. The project would not have been possible without the participants, who not only gave their time, but who were strong enough to reflect on their experiences, and creative enough to interpret them so beautifully. The group showed such bravery, support and respect for each other, and working with them was a true privilege. Since completion, the participants have been surveyed, and the responses analysed.
Two informal information sessions were held as part of the recruitment process, 9 of the 10 of respondents felt this adequately prepared them for what the project would involve. All participants reported feeling supported in how to use the art materials they had been provided with. Encouragingly, all respondents said they felt the monthly sessions were helpful from an emotional point of view, with 100% reporting benefits from the peer support element of the project. All respondents also reported feeling inspired by the monthly sessions, equipping them with ideas for their creative work. 100% of participants reported being satisfied with the aesthetic of the online exhibition, making the following statements:
“The website is excellent, looks very professional, easy to navigate and the photos really do the artwork justice”
“The website created by Elaine was truly spectacular, both in terms of the content, and the design. Although we were forced to move the exhibition online because of COVID restrictions, it proved to be a blessing, as so many people have been able to engage with the work, than would have been able to, if it was a physical exhibition. Elaine’s flexibility in being to pivot to an online offer was agile and quick-thinking!”
“The delivery was to a very high standard and the online exhibition was easy to navigate. It left me feeling so very proud to have been a part of the project. Hopefully there may be opportunity to have a live physical exhibition in future times. Elaine did fantastic from start to end, guiding and supporting us through the sessions.”
When asked if there were any aspects of the project they thought could have been done better, the responses were a collective no, however participants felt it would have been beneficial to have met as a group had it not been for the covid restrictions.
When asked if they thought the exhibition Invisible Truths had successfully achieved it’s aim to raise awareness, reduce stigma, and act as an effective campaigning tool for improved perinatal mental health services, all respondents agreed that it had fulfilled it’s purpose, with the following comments:
“The exhibition reached many people and I was very proactive in sharing the exhibition too. It is so important to keep talking. Having the visual art pieces was powerful, thought provoking.”
“I believe we can continue to use Invisible Truths to illustrate the stories of people with lived experience of perinatal mental illness. The number of people we have been to reach through the website and social media is testament to the power of the work”
“Absolutely, it was widely shared and there was a phenomenal amount of feedback!”
Creativity in action
The group was then asked to comment on what they felt was the impact of exploring and presenting experiences in a creative format, with the following responses:
“It offers therapy while spreading our message”
“Allows you to explore your thoughts through a new medium which is cathartic”
“Creative format creates connection with the on looker and pulls the audience to read more behind the story and person”
“Presenting experiences artistically takes the experience one step back from the individual. Sharing your story can be a difficult experience, no matter how much you want to do it, and how much you want to use it to help other people. By creating a network, and appreciating the contribution of the artists, the project empowered us to be involved. We received arts materials and learned skills that we could go on to use in other aspects of our life, including with out children (my water-colour palate is now well used by my daughter!). We weren’t just being asked to “stand up and tell our story”, we got something out of it too, via the support of the group, and the arts materials, and the self-esteem boost we could take from seeing our artwork and story displayed publicly.”
“It’s very impactful. I think it attracts attention from people who would otherwise not have any idea and gives them some insight into our experiences. It’s also been a great ice breaker with mums who have seen the work reaching out for support.”
“Excellent means of giving a ‘voice’ to people who otherwise might stay silent. Can spark a new or old interest”
“Showing there is help and support and that no one is alone.”
“It allows you to showcase the moment a person has captured their own individual experience using a creative format. Each person has their own unique story to tell and capturing this in such a unique way means people can gain a deeper understanding of what perinatal mental illness is and how it affects people. It is also open to interpretation and I think can go a lot deeper than words alone can.”
“It allows people to see the reality of experiences in a different way. An image can provoke different, stronger reactions to a situation and I think that shows in the feedback from the general public on the project.”
What was it like?
Finally, the participants were asked to comment on the experience of taking part in the project:
“It made me feel less negative towards my time with PND”
“I enjoyed taking part and felt privileged to be included. I felt connected with the group and supported. I was pleased to share some of my story and would like to participate in similar events in future. I feel very passionate about maternal mental health, no longer I am Afraid to speak the truth.”
“Emotional, creative, empowering. Elaine facilitation of the group’s work both on and offline was respectful and inclusive, and her enthusiasm for the subject shines through. More of this sort of thing!”
“Very positive, sad it’s over.”
“Overall good, positive, experience, would recommend! “
“Enjoyed meeting new people and getting back to drawing again.”
“I thoroughly enjoyed taking part in the project. I felt it was a privilege to be part of this journey with other people who had been affected by perinatal mental Health and it offered me the opportunity to explore my own experiences, illness and recovery whilst also learning about how other people have been affected. I feel I have gained much deeper knowledge and understanding of perinatal mental Health and how services can adapt and improve to support women more appropriately.”
The participatory arts project Invisible Truths has successfully shared the lived experience of women who have been affected by perinatal mental illness in Scotland. The creative work produced has highlighted the reality of perinatal mental health service provision across various health boards, and the impact of the postcode lottery which persists today.
The exhibition will continue to provide a powerful narrative, educating healthcare professionals, trainees, third sector service providers and policy makers alike, on what it feels like as a new mum to struggle to gain access to support. It is hoped the work will help shape future services, and lead to provision which is easily accessible for mums, and their families, regardless of their postcode.
The feedback from the participants was hugely positive, with many reporting a healing effect from taking part, benefiting from the peer support they received. Creative therapy combined with peer support can be very powerful, and is hopefully something we will see more of when shaping future perinatal services.
What do website visitors think?
Feedback from exhibition visitors has also been phenomenal, and these comments seem like a fitting way to conclude the project evaluation:
“So poignant and powerful, parents voices and images need to be heard, seen and felt. Fantastic artistic response from MMHS Experts by Experience collective.”
“Such powerful work via an array of creative mediums. Thank you to all the contributors for their strength. This work will no doubt raise awareness in Scotland and beyond . . .”
“Powerful, inspiring and challenging project from MMHS about Scotland’s perinatal mental health services.”
“An artistic exploration of perinatal mental health services in Scotland. Making invisible truths, visible, through art and poetry. One of the best explorations on perinatal mental health services, and what support looks like, that you will come across.”
“There are some incredibly powerful creative pieces here, and the messages shouldn’t go unnoticed!”
“There are some really raw works of art here that beautifully convey what women have been experiencing mentally in Scotland, in the perinatal period.”
“Especially (to me) the images are real & raw, conveying women’s pain, despair & frustration when services cannot meet their needs. Great work to enable them express themselves & help others understand the experience.”
“Wow – the art on this MMHS website is beautiful yet heartbreaking. Such creative and powerful expressions of perinatal mental health difficulties.”