Group Therapy book: introductory essay

The Group Therapy exhibition closes on Sunday, but you will still be able to snap up a copy of the Group Therapy book from Amazon or the Liverpool University Press Website. Recommended highlights include the vacuum cleaner’s hilarious and thought provoking essay about gaining access to his medical records as part of the production process for his show Mental, and Clive Parkinson’s polemic on the value of challenging and risk-taking artwork in the arts for health sector. A full list of awesome contributors is at the end of this post.

Lots of people have requested a copy of the introductory essay on my site, so I thought (with the kind permission of the publisher) that I would reproduce the essay here.  Its a bit of a #longread but I hope it might be useful for people who can’t get hold of a hard copy. Feedback would be relished…


Vanessa Bartlett.

Published in Group Therapy: Mental Distress in a Digital Age [A User Guide]



This is a collection of essays about personal wellbeing in a contemporary age. At its core is a conviction that mental health is not just a medical issue, but is deeply impacted by the social relationships, political conditions, and technologies that that structure our lives. It is published to coincide with the exhibition Group Therapy: Mental distress in a digital age held at FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) and co-curated by Mike Stubbs and myself. It is written in part by the artists, psychologists and health professionals involved in making the exhibition.

Using provocations and personal testimony derived from first hand experience, the writers in this book seek to challenge some of our conventional perceptions about mental health. We move away from the idea that mental illness is a condition that impacts on a small cohort of individuals living at the edges of society and exhibiting pathological behaviors. Instead we address ways that all of us experience mental distress through pressure at work, status anxiety and common experiences of guilt or negativity. While this is not a new approach to mental illness (there is a rich tradition of critiquing psychiatry that we often allude to in this collection), we consider it in relationship to some issues specific to late capitalism and our technologically driven society

I have titled this book ‘a user guide’ because I believe that useful knowledge about mental health comes from many places other than the textbooks of doctors and psychiatrists. All of the contributors are experts either by education, professional training or as a result of their own lived experience. Most of the writers are somehow all three of these things. I want to thank them for the bravery and honesty they have employed in writing about their own experiences. This kind of openness should inspire all of us to have more frank conversations about our own mental health.

While this ‘user guide’ is not intended to be overly instructive (a collection of resources is provided at the end of the book if you need some day-to-day support with your mental health), it does harness the ability of artists, designers and others working creatively and experimentally in their own field to contribute to the contemporary conversation about mental wellbeing. Familiar trends in art discourse, particularly socially engaged practice, have primed contemporary art audiences to consider artworks an active process that can have transformative impacts on their audiences. For Grant H Kester writing in his book Conversation Pieces, dialogue among diverse communities has become suitable material for making art that can serve as a catalyst for social change.[1] Likewise art theorists such as Jill Bennett have put forward the notion that aesthetic experience is a ‘means of apprehending the world via sense-based and affective processes – processes that touch bodies intimately and directly but that also underpin the emotions, sentiments and passions of public life’[2]. This book contains a collection of practice-based accounts of first person mental health experience that I hope will have an impact on attitudes to mental illness far beyond the gallery walls.

The product of a creative research process that has taken place around the 18-month development of the Group Therapy exhibition, this book includes several contributions from individuals who would not consider themselves to be engaged in arts practice. Rather the book and the exhibition both use the arts as a platform for engaging practices from fields such as clinical psychology, design, architecture and even individuals who blog about their own mental health. As part of the curatorial process we have always maintained that the subject matter of this exhibition demands the convergence of multiple disciplines in an art context in order to produce risk-taking conversations about mental health that might not arise in clinical practice or academic discourse. FACT, with its track record of interdisciplinary programming and commitment to social engagement has been the perfect location in which to play out these experimental conversations.

This exhibition celebrates FACT’s twenty-year history of outreach and collaborative practice in areas related to mental health. The ambition of many of these projects has been to engage excluded groups (including war veterans and psychiatric inpatients) in artistic processes that help to illuminate and overcome their experiences of isolation, marginalisation or mental health issues. Examples of recent works include the 2013 collaboration between artist Babis Alexiadis and participants from Mersey Care NHS Trust, who produced a series of animations exploring their personal experiences of mental illness and addiction. In 2009 Polish artist Krzysztof Wodiczko engaged a group of military veterans in the production of his War Veteran Vehicle, a project that not only facilitated the participants opening up about their experiences of war but also offered a critique of the destruction that politically motivated combat can inflict on individual soldier’s psyches. First person testimonies revealing the emotional consequences of war were projected onto the walls of local buildings: As one participant expressed:

“You’re trained to be aggressive, you’re trained to use the adrenaline to do things, and speed, and use your aggression to get you through certain events and the problem being is when you come back you don’t switch the aggression off.”

p.8 copy

This statement demonstrates something key to the ideas that have shaped Group Therapy. We live in a society that prioritises political objectives over the thoughts and feelings of individuals who live with the consequences of policy and economic objectives. This applies not just to people who engage in military combat, but to schoolteachers, hospital staff and all of us who use public services. It is just one of the many ‘crazy’ facets of a society that does not provide long-term well-being for the many, but is designed to deliver wealth and power for the few. It is one of the socio-economic dynamics that needs to shift if we are to create a society where everyone can enjoy psychological well-being equally.

This book is structured around three key issues and how they relate to mental health: Society, Technology and Creative Practice. Longer essays take on the role of conceptual and theoretical provocation that intends to encourage critical thinking about social and political attitudes to mental health. A number of shorter pieces speak directly to some form of practice or experience, such as blogging about mental health or doing digital art therapy. There is a range of voices accommodated in this volume, from a young art project participant to a senior visual cultures theorist. I hope that the resulting polyphony adds depth and texture to our investigation of mental health.

Chapter one sets the tone for the book by exploring links between contemporary society and wellbeing. In the 1960s Scottish psychiatrist R D Laing made his name by critiquing the crudely drawn line between insanity and rationality. In The Politics of Experience, he focused particularly on the contradictory notion of normality in an existentially distorted world:

‘What we call ‘normal’ is a product of repression, denial, splitting, projection, introjection and other forms of destructive action on experience… It is radically estranged from the structure of being”[3]

Laing in many ways remains a controversial figure (his alcoholism and free use of LSD with psychotic patients perhaps overshadows his intellectual legacy), yet all three of the contributors in this section are in some way indebted the linage of radical critique that he pioneered. Three writers: Peter Kinderman, the vacuum cleaner and Mark Fisher all address how socio-political conventions and contemporary ways of being cause disruption in the psyche.

In his essay Seeing things differently, Peter Kinderman draws on his experiences as a clinical psychologist to describe how the human brain, an organ that calls a ‘learning engine’, develops in response to environmental stimuli. He argues that poor mental health is less often the consequence of a biological brain based problem, but is more likely the product of challenging life experiences that teach the subject the world is a hostile place. If individual mental health is a direct result of perspective, which is in turn shaped by environmental conditions beyond our control, can we assume that medication and diagnostic labels are not the most helpful form of mental health rehabilitation?

In The Right to K(no)w artist the vaccum cleaner gives a vivid account of the 15-year process that he underwent to gather medical records from his entire history of psychiatric care. The material was used in his performance piece Mental, where the theme of institutional power was explored using fragments of doctors’ notes and personal memory. Under the data protection act patients have a legal right to access their own medical records, although the process of exercising that right can be fraught with bureaucratic and emotional challenges. His example creates an image of the ways that individuals with serious mental health issues become powerless subjects in the complex medical systems that have been created to mange mental health.

For Mark Fisher capitalist economies are not only a stimulus for high levels of chronic stress and anxiety, but are also sustained and maintained by the medicalisation of distress. He suggests that if unhappiness and discontent can be framed as chemical brain imbalances that can be treated by prescription drugs, this forecloses the possibility of objection to a political system that produces injustice and inequality. In his essay Reflexive impotence, immobilization and liberal communism he foregrounds the predicament of young people caught in the mechanics of capitalism and the role that new technologies might play in their passive acceptance of the political status quo.

In Chapter Two, five writers offer their perspective on the complex relationship between mental health and the digital world. As technologies become more sophisticated, they are applied to all aspects of human life including gambling, shopping and of course dating and digital sex. Mental health care is no exception and in recent years we have seen blogging, bio mapping and app building all used to service positive mental wellbeing. Many examples of these technologies are curated into the Group Therapy exhibition, as means of understanding them alongside contextual discourses around privacy and selfhood. For example documentation of Samaritans Radar app, an algorithm that sent notifications to people’s Twitter followers when they posted language that suggested suicidal behavior (and was later taken offline in response to protests), is included as a reminder of the complexities that can arise when we outsource mental health care to data and digital systems. In a climate of financial austerity and increasing demand for mental health care, how much should we trust the assertion that digital is good for our mental health and not just a cheap remedy for a complex social problem?

To open this chapter Seaneen Molloy and Charlotte Wealthy present accounts of their experiences of using social media and apps to support their mental health. In Blogging Mental Health Seaneen describes the experience of documenting her bi-polar disorder for a large public audience and its subsequent impact on her sense of privacy, selfhood and her perceived obligation to her audience. In Using Apps to Support my Mental Health Charlotte Wealthy explains how working with other young people on the In Hand project at FACT has helped her to build self-awareness in digital space.

In Talking back: Mental Health and Social Media Victoria Betton explores ways that social technologies such as Twitter give patients and service users a platform for self-expression, something that is so often lacking in mainstream clinical environments. While employed as a Senior Manager in an NHS trust, Victoria used Twitter to converse with patients and clinicians in a way that she suggests overcame the hierarchical barriers encountered in her professional life. While she is ultimately cautious about the power structures that can encroach into online space (increasingly ‘social media guidelines’ are being issued to clinicians by their employers) she is able to frame social media as part of a long heritage of self-publishing and advocacy that has allowed patients to oppose the mainstream mental health system.

To close this chapter Ben Koslowski, the exhibition designer for Group Therapy applies knowledge gained while designing architectural spaces for mental health hospitals to ideas about privacy and personal space online. While working on designs for Forth Valley Royal Hospital Ben noticed that one of the major requirements for this environment was for it to accommodate different forms of distress: ‘a noisy and busy environment easily overstimulates and causes anxiety in a depressive patient, while manic patients are frequently understimulated.’ The tension between surveillance and individual comfort (patients must be observable by clinical staff yet also at home in their own environment) prompted Ben to consider parallels with online space. In Mental Health in a Digital Age: Lessons from architectural design practice he focuses on the way privacy in physical space might influence design thinking in digital space.

Chapter three addresses the relationship between art and mental health in a way that I hope challenges some of the familiar assumptions about art education and outreach. While the rhetoric of social inclusion in the arts often comes from a place of good intent, it is also always in danger of compromising the most experimental and enriching aspects of the artistic process. As Hannah Hull, a socially engaged artist and collaborator on the vacuum cleaner’s Madlove project points out, the assumptions made about art projects that engage mental health service user groups include:

‘art is therapeutic for target groups; being part of an art workshop has a socialising effect; exhibiting art gives a sense of achievement; seeing art made by target groups promotes social inclusion; buying art made by this group is charitable and demonstrates social awareness.’[4]

There has been a conscious attempt throughout our curatorial process to avoid framing specific audiences who need to be ‘fixed’ by art. Rather we have focused on the potential for individual and systemic change that can occur when art is innovative rather than prescriptive. This thinking is reflected by Clive Parkinson, who in his essay A Brightly Coloured Bell Jar, recounts his experience as an arts consultant in a hospital, where the Chief Executive considered one artwork too dark and dispiriting to be included in his arts for health remit. Clive argues that art in a medical or therapeutic environment must overcome the often-prescriptive agendas of its commissioners and thrive on the uncertainty and difficulty of the artistic process.

These arguments in favour of complexity are echoed in Amanda Cachia’s essay ‘Disabling’ the Museum: Curator as infrastructural activist, which deals directly with the issue of access in museums and galleries. There is a tendency in the contemporary museum (as well as the art gallery) to address audiences with physical and mental health issues as a specialist category. While this approach is often well meaning, it can also have the effect of re-affirming difference. With a curatorial practice that often focuses on the subject of physical disability, Cachia challenges museums and galleries to ‘think about how access can move beyond a mere practical conundrum, often added as an afterthought once an exhibition has been installed, to use as a dynamic, critical and creative tool in art-making and curating.’ At its core the essay contains a critique of the concept of ‘normality’ that is highly pertinent to the way this publication deals with mental health. It is only when museums and galleries begin to see access as a universal issue that impacts on everyone (not just those with a disability or diagnosed mental health condition) that we can create exhibitions that truly understand their audience as diverse and complex in their mental and physical make up.

Both Paul Dean and George Khut’s short practice based contributions deal with the artistic use of technology in therapeutic and healing environments. In Doing Digital Art Therapy Paul Dean recounts how a group of young people who were struggling to understand how emotions might evolve slowly over time (perhaps as a result of the instant gratification they were accustomed to from digital media) learned a different sense of time through the practice of writing letters. In Experiencing the Body Beyond Pathology artist George Khut describes how his project The Heart Library (one of the works in the Group Therapy exhibition) offers audiences a way of experiencing their body beyond the notion of pathology, which preoccupies so much of Western art and medicine.

The questions posed in this publication are timely and urgent and may (we hope) propose some insight into each of our reader’s internal worlds, social relations and perceptions of selfhood and difference. Written in a year when there have been several reported deaths as a result of cuts to disability benefits and overall funding for mental health has continued to fall, Group Therapy provides an important opportunity to rethink what it means to be mentally well, both individually and for society as a whole.

Links to book contributors

Victoria Betton
Amanda Cachia
Paul Dean
Mark Fisher
George Khut
Peter Kinderman
Benjamin Koslowski
Seaneen Molloy
Clive Parkinson
Mike Stubbs
the vacuum cleaner
Charlotte Wealthy

Image credits

Mark with Babis Alexiadis, Back From the Brown Stuff, animation still, 2013. Part of Mersey Cares a partnership project with Mersey Care NHS Trust

Krzysztof Wodiczko, War Veteran Vehicle, 2009. Courtesy of Abandon Normal Devices festival. Photographer: Brian Slater


[1] Grant Kester, Conversation Pieces: Community + Communication in Modern Art. (London and California: University of California Press, 2004)

[2] Jill Bennnet, Practical Aesthetics: Events, Affects and Art after 9/11. (London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2013), 2.

[3] R. D, Laing, The Politics of Experience. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1967), 11

[4] Hannah Hull, Innovating Art Outreach, Accessed 7 December 2014


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