Ray never wanted to wake up. Then his life took a radical, unexpected turn

Imagine you see your GP and instead of a pharmaceutical prescription, they refer you to an art class or suggest joining a community choir. It may sound like an outdated idea from the 1970s, but ‘art by prescription’ is a growing movement in the treatment of mental health problems; in Britain and other countries, it was found to improve participants’ well-being and lead to a reduction in health care costs.

Now Professor Katherine Boydell of Australia’s Black Dog Institute is studying whether involvement in arts-based activities could help here. One in five Australians would experience symptoms of mental health problems in any given year. As part of the study, a new ABC documentary, room 22, features seven strangers between the ages of 18 and 66, whose experiences with mental illness range from anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, and who participate in a series of creative endeavors over six episodes. Boydell measures their results everywhere and they are supported by Sydney psychotherapist Noula Diamantopoulos, who specializes in art-based therapy.

Hosted by singer Natalie Bassingthwaighte, the series also features visual artists Wendy Sharpe and Abdul Abdullah and singer-songwriter Eddie Perfect. Bassingthwaighte has struggled with mental illness for years and loved being involved.

“I felt like everything I’d been through so far, I’d been through to get here,” she says. While she says she hasn’t “hidden” to talk about her mental health, she’s never been “on the forefront.”

Natalie Bassingthwaighte host Space 22: “I felt like everything I’d been through so far, I’d been through to get here.”

“I was nervous about being that person – what that would look like, how that could turn out in my career – so I didn’t put it all out there like I’m comfortable enough to do today. I think it is now. It’s important to talk about it because so many of us are going through it.”

All participants emerged from the experiment with a higher sense of well-being (using Black Dog’s scientific measurements), but perhaps none had such a radical turnaround as 66-year-old Sydney man Ray (participants are known only by their First Name).

At the start of the series, Ray, a retired engineer who was mistreated in his childhood, resulting in a life of depression and anger, says that he wakes up each morning disappointed that he has made it through the night; apart from his daughter and granddaughter, he finds little to enjoy in life. “I was always an outsider, I always felt alone or lonely,” he says. It’s hard to watch. But at the risk of clichés, the six episodes of the documentary really do see the light return to Ray’s eyes.

In recent years, Ray found help in the form of trauma-based therapy, but anything even remotely artistic came close to his radar. “I’ve always thought art was money wasted,” he says. “I thought if the shit ever hit the fan with the world, the arts would be the first thing that could lose money because we didn’t really need them. I was kinda wild about that – I just thought it was a waste of time.”

He joined the project through a call on a Facebook Men’s Mental Health Group. It was through the Black Dog Institute that he found the kind of therapy to help him, and he was eager to help others. “I just wanted to advocate for men’s mental health,” he says, adding that he couldn’t imagine getting anything out of it on his own. “I went in with the attitude that art was just a shaky thing.”

From left, artist Abdul Abdullah with contestant Ray and Space 22 present Natalie Bassingthwaighte.

From left, artist Abdul Abdullah with contestant Ray and Space 22 present Natalie Bassingthwaighte.

But after 10 days of practice, including drawing, painting, photography and songwriting, Ray is a complete convert; to be part of Space 22 was a real revelation.

“I do art every day now,” he says. “My living room now looks like Wendy Sharpe’s studio! I enjoy it intensely. Maybe I’m sitting here doing something else and I get the urge to get up and put a few more brush strokes on the canvas, or make another drawing.”

He enters art competitions and even has a favorite visual artist (emerging British artist Adam Riches); Space 22 has changed him immeasurably.

“When I go to bed now, the last thing on my mind is what my next piece is about,” he says. “And I have no problem getting up and feeling like I want to do something. The first thing that comes to mind right now is, well, I’m going to do some art today and then I’m going to clean the house. It really surprised me how much I’ve changed.”

Eddie Perfect, who has spent a lifetime working in the arts, isn’t too surprised. “Humans have danced and sung and created…instinctively since man has existed; it’s in us to be creative,” he says.

In a way, Perfect, who spent two days helping the participants write a song together, says what? Space 22 trying to measure is something inherently known to all people.

“Participating in a group is good for the human psyche. It teaches people to listen, collaborate, share, be generous, take risks, fail, express what you think and feel,” he says.

Engaging creativity for the sake of it, rather than for a professional or financial outcome, he says, is something we should all do. “Just pure creativity without all that fucking X-Factor bullshit. Not this, just people who have been anointed by these imaginary gods as a person chosen to sing, dance or perform, and if you are not one of those people, sit down, shut up and leave it to the talented people. We don’t do that with sports or math’, he says. “There is no other human endeavor where we don’t expect people to participate without being professional, except the arts – and it’s ridiculous!”

Vivienne, another participant in the program, says that after a few days with the group, she felt something shift in her. “I’ve been doing talk therapy for years – debriefing incidents and situations – but not art or music, and I loved it. It was a form of self-expression that I had never used before,” she says. “I didn’t know what it would do to my brain, but I had some big breakthroughs.”

A former scientist, Vivienne, 55, is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, addiction and homelessness. She always loved music and looking at paintings, but had never picked up a brush herself. Ever since Space 22art has become part of her daily life.

Songwriter Eddie Perfect helps <i>Space 22</i> participants, including Vivienne and Ray, to write their own song.” loading=”lazy” src=”https://static.ffx.io/images/$zoom_0.145%2C$multiply_0.4431%2C$ratio_1. 5%2C$width_756%2C$x_391%2C$y_57/t_crop_custom/q_86%2Cf_auto/8e19447f98498b1acfdcb20ded34260f9745ed9b” height=”224″ width=”335″ srcset=”https://static.ffx.io/0images/$zoom. 145%2C$multiply_0.4431%2C$ratio_1.5%2C$width_756%2C$x_391%2C$y_57/t_crop_custom/q_86%2Cf_auto/8e19447f98498b1acfdcb20ded34260f9745ed9b, https://0.1/static.ffx.io %2C$multiply_0.8862%2C$ratio_1.5%2C$width_756%2C$x_391%2C$y_57/t_crop_custom/q_62%2Cf_auto/8e19447f98498b1acfdcb20ded34260f9745ed9b 2x”/></picture><figcaption class=

Songwriter Eddie Perfect helps Space 22 contestants, including Vivienne and Ray, to write their own song.

“The producers gave us all a beautiful art pack as a thank you, and then all my friends gave me art supplies, so I painted a lot – it’s a really good way to connect,” she says. “We all need something more than just sitting in a room talking about our trauma. It’s part of it, but it can be isolating. Hopefully people get [from the program] that when you come together as a group, whatever your background, there is a tremendous amount of healing power in it. The whole thing was just so uplifting.”

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Even though, as happened with some participants halfway through the experiment, there were some lows.

Creativity, says Perfect, isn’t necessarily just a pleasurable experience. “Things that are confrontational and frustrating, hard to overcome… to me that’s what creativity is – reducing it to something that’s like a walk in a meadow among beautiful flowers cuts short. I think creativity is a real workout, not just for the joy receptors in our bodies, but for things like frustration, pain and anger – that’s where art really comes into its own,” he says.

“I think we want challenging, engaging and rewarding complexity in our lives and art can give that to people.”

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