After many years of living with depression, Carol Tobin was introduced to Arts + Minds, a HSE arts and mental health programme based in Cork. Here she talks about her recovery journey and the impact that participating in the arts has had on her life.
The Arts: my instrument for living with depression
My name is Carol. I am 55. I am happily married for over 38 years. I have four amazing sons, and five beautiful grandchildren, with one more on the way.
And I live with depression.
It all started after I had a hysterectomy in 1994. Shortly after that, in 1995, I was diagnosed with clinical depression. I was only 32. Coincidence? Looking back now, it strikes me as odd how none of the health professionals took this life-changing procedure into consideration whilst diagnosing me.
As long as I live, I’ll never forget when that dark cloud consumed my life. Sad, down and miserable. All day. Everyday. Normal life became impossible. I couldn’t sleep, eat or look after my young family, which upset me the most.
I went to my GP, who prescribed anti-depressants and so my journey began. Months and months went by. Changes were made to my medication, but nothing worked. I quickly slid into a terrifying, dark abyss. My GP was lost and so was I. After referring me to a psychiatrist at the local hospital, mood stabilisers and sleeping pills were added to my daily cocktail of meds.
Years of mental agony went by. Accompanied by more and more serious bouts of depression. That’s when the unthinkable happened: being admitted to an acute psychiatric ward and receiving massive doses of medication for three long weeks.
When I came out from hospital, I couldn’t believe there were absolutely no community-based aftercare services, only outpatient visits. To say this was a scary time would be a massive understatement.
A year or so later, I had another relapse. This time, far more serious, which led to another four weeks in hospital. The fear and boredom were crippling. What I looked forward to the most during my stay were the relaxation therapy and make-up sessions on Friday mornings, which the nursing staff and volunteers organised.
After being released for the second time, again there were no community-based support groups or services. I simply had to accept that this was Ireland’s mental health service and that was that.
Then maybe six years ago, a Community Mental Health Nurse told me about a music group that was starting in our local community centre for HSE mental health service users. The music project was part of Arts + Minds, a relatively new arts and mental health programme that was being developed with staff and service users in a number of Cork HSE mental health settings.
There was a great atmosphere in the group; musicians brought lots of different instruments and we could all participate in music making, but even though lots of clients really loved this group, it wasn’t really for me.
After a few months, my Community Mental Health Nurse mentioned that a choral project was also about to start and would I be interested in attending. So I went along. Five years later, I am incredibly proud to say I am still happily a member.
The choral group grew from just a few people, mental health staff, service users and a choral leader, into what it is today – an amazing choir of 25 to 30 members, which we named The Leeside Serotones.
Our members are approximately half male and half female, ranging in age from 25 to 65. Some of our members, particularly the men, would barely speak to anyone in the beginning. Five years later, the change is dramatic. We now socialise together and perform at mental health, community, arts and other venues across Cork, and our confidence, singing skills and repertoire have come on in leaps and bounds.
All this can only happen through the great work of our community mental health nurses, the arts co-ordinator and artists, who work tirelessly to develop new arts projects for people suffering with mental health issues in Cork.
Arts + Minds now has lots of different projects that provide a vital opportunity for creative expression and development, through visual arts, creative writing, dance and film projects, as well as through music and singing. I’ve also taken part in visual arts and dance projects over the years – it turns out that dance and singing are the artforms for me.
What’s very important to me, and the other service users I’ve spoken to, is that most of these projects take place in community venues. We understand that arts projects can be invaluable in individual mental health settings and I wish I’d had the opportunity to participate when I was in acute care; but once you are in recovery and back in the community, it is so important to be able to participate and attend groups and events in arts and community settings like a ‘normal’ member of society, rather than always attending mental health institutions.
Today, I am very happy and proud to say I am very well and have drastically reduced my medication. I became a service user representative on the Arts + Minds Steering Committee, and since then have become their Public Relations Officer.
The arts are an essential part of recovery for me and for others that I speak and create with. For many, it is the only reason to get out of bed some days. It has enriched my recovery journey in so many ways, and I have gone from being a very young scared mother and wife living through the hell of mental illness, to now being a confident and vocal member of Arts + Minds and my local community.
I think education is key. In order to shine a new light on mental ill health, I spoke to students at UCC, who will ultimately end up working in this field. It’s crucial that they understand how the arts can help sufferers of depression to develop artistic as well as social skills, concentration, confidence and to find new purpose. I have also spoken on World Mental Health Day to health professionals to highlight the importance of the arts in recovery and I participated in research for an Arts + Minds Action Research Project with the researcher Lydia Sapouna and her team at UCC which resulted in the report ‘Beyond Diagnosis – the transformative potential of the arts in mental health recovery’.
As members, we now take it for granted that these services will always be available to us and to other people suffering with mental health issues. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all who helped to show me a whole new aspect to life through the arts, and to urge the HSE to continue to fund and develop the arts as part of its mental health services.
To anyone that may currently be distressed, I am a testament to a life in recovery. I encourage you to see if there are any arts opportunities in your area, and to explore lots of different art mediums until you find the one, or two, that are just right for you.
I have gone from being a very young scared mother and wife living through the hell of mental illness, to now being a confident and vocal member of Arts + Minds and my local community.