Victoria Tischler: art, fashion and public engagement with mental health

Article originally written in November 2014

Psychology expert Victoria Tischler teaches art skills to individuals at a forensic hospital to help them recover from mental distress, but she explains that art and fashion may also be effective in reducing stigma.

Since the 19th century artistic works produced by people with mental health problems have inspired movements in the professional art world. When so much is talked about mental health awareness, psychologist Victoria Tischler, says art can also promote public understanding of mental illness.

Victoria, a senior psychology lecturer at the London College of Fashion, began her work with art and creativity in her late teens. At that time, as part of her first degree, she worked in a psychiatric hospital, in Sydney, Australia. She says it was “an old-fashioned Victorian-style asylum and still had a moat around it, albeit without water in it. It was a frightening place for a young woman.”

She worked in a ward which housed people who had behavioural problems. Many patients had difficulty communicating or wouldn’t speak at all.

“I began to make art with them and noticed that people became alert and focused and that the activity seemed to calm them. Some who couldn’t or wouldn’t speak produced the most complex and intriguing work.”

Victoria Tischler

Victoria Tischler: “There is some small-scale research which suggests that, depending on our mood, we choose particularly different types of clothing, but people within institutions have much less choice.”
Image credits: George Cathro

Victoria found that, when people feel certain things to be too painful to say or speak, drawing and painting were alternative modes of communicating past experiences.

After working in a community mental health team, Victoria has done academic research and has become increasingly interested in the relationship between creativity and mental illness.

Returning to the work she had done as a student, Victoria now works with patients at one of the three high-security hospitals in England. She contributes to the Recovery College, which aims to give people abilities to help them recover from mental health problems.

“This is the most marginalised and isolated population,” Victoria says. The most common illnesses diagnosed among the attendees are schizophrenia and personality disorders. “My sessions specially focus on developing artistic skills which they are able to use as part of the recovery.”

She asks patients in advance to choose a theme. This may be a general concept like ʻhope’. Giving people choices encourages engagement in the session, even from people who are normally very withdrawn, says Victoria.

Early in the session she gives examples of trained and untrained artists who have used art to describe and work through their mental distress. “I then choose an artistic technique, such as block printing, which each person uses to create art. The time is then spent making and discussing art made in session.”

“Art offers a way to discuss the often difficult but always fascinating subject that is mental health.”

Promoting artistic expression as a means to communicate and recover from mental illness, Victoria organised regular exhibitions of art works by service users at the Institute of Mental Health, in Nottingham. Some works even became part of the building where she was arts coordinator from 2009 until earlier last year. Victoria says that art made by people with mental health problems shows that they can be uniquely talented. She cites Nick Blinko as an example of an artist who has been able to present his work in art galleries internationally.

That was one of the ideas behind the exhibition “Art in the Asylum: creativity and the evolution of psychiatry”. Curated by Victoria and Esra Plumer, it was held at the Djanogly Gallery, at the University of Nottingham in 2013. It charted the diagnostic and therapeutic use of art in British asylums from 1832 to 1970 and addressed the role that asylum art played in modern and contemporary art movements.

Victoria says that, from the visitors’ feedback, she was happy to know that the exhibition changed their ideas about people who are mentally ill and about the way they are treated. She believes that art is an effective means to educate and create positive interest in mental health.

“Art offers a way to discuss the often difficult but always fascinating subject that is mental health.” She also tries to involve professional artists because she thinks high-profile artists are able to promote a wider level of engagement.

Now at the London School of Fashion, Victoria is teaching her creative students to look at fashion and explore clothing through the insights of psychology.

She says: “The way we dress ourselves is a reflection of our identity, of our mood and self-esteem. If you look in institutions that provide mental health services, often people have very limited access to fashionable clothing. There is some small-scale research which suggests that, depending on our mood, we choose particularly different types of clothing, but people within institutions have much less choice. It might be interesting to see if fashionable clothing does improve their well-being.”

Victoria also thinks that, because all of us wear clothing, fashion has also the potential to be a powerful way to engage society in mental health issues.

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