Community Reporter and Storyteller in Zoom interview

Getting creative to support wellbeing during COVID-19 in Barnsley, South Kirklees, and Wakefield

COVID-19 has greatly impacted on the wellbeing of communities in South and West Yorkshire. To explore this further and see how creativity can support people in these communities, People’s Voice Media and Creative Minds have partnered on a collaborative project, with funding from the Association of Mental Health Providers, using digital storytelling to listen to the voices of people in Barnsley, South Kirklees and Wakefield. We trained people from the area as Community Reporters in order to gather stories from others about their wellbeing throughout the pandemic, and how creativity has helped them. These stories of lived experience were then examined by the Community Reporters in a series of sense-making sessions in order to pull out common themes, which have been used to make recommendations for developing creative mental health interventions with local communities. 

The full insight report can be downloaded here.

“You’re just at home crying by yourself”- Isolation and the importance of community

Driven home in many of the stories is the point that lockdown has forced people to struggle alone, in many cases unable to access help or unsure of where to seek it. One lady who lost her dad and her brother during the pandemic found not being able to say goodbye due to hospital restrictions particularly difficult to cope with: “You’re just crying at home by yourself.” Another storyteller, who lost her best friend since childhood in June 2020, found she could not attend the funeral due to restrictions on numbers. Instead, she had to ‘attend’ by sitting in her car outside. "That was one of the toughest things I've had to go through. … It was just awful, not even being able to console her family.” Visibly emotional, she tells how she occasionally talks on the phone with her friend’s mum, but that is all. "It's just gone by like a dream, like it never happened, because we're still not able to see each other." Stories like these suggest there is a lot of pent-up grief that has not been able to be ‘properly’ expressed due to isolation which is, of course, going to have an impact on mental health.

A mental health practitioner tells how he is concerned by the lack of support in particular areas of the community. "It's unfortunate to see that referrals from the BAME community has still been low. … I know this taboo, I know this stigma, I know this difficulty for that community to access services as well, and I guess it's just that notion of suffering alone, you know?" He says how a lack of BAME practitioners and a lack of cultural sensitivity have compounded the problem which has left many people isolated both physically and mentally. This is supported by the storyteller who lost her friend, who says she was unable to find support from organisations or charities that were relevant to her or the wider BAME community during the pandemic.

There are, however, signs of communities pulling together and people finding support within those communities during lockdown. A mum studying for her PhD tells how she found a great deal of benefit in joining online wellbeing sessions provided by her university and her local community: “[I felt] like I'm not in this alone." A tutor at a local centre for the community says how she began worrying about the people she'd normally work with in the community and how they'd cope: "I spoke to one of my managers and we set up a foodbank [that's still running]." She has found that working within her community has protected her own mental health during lockdown, as well as helping her get to know her neighbours. These stories demonstrate that isolation has been one of the biggest mental health challenges of COVID-19, and that finding ways to be part of a community is one of the ways to help that. 

“Where I find joy is when I'm creating things” - Supporting mental health through creativity

It is apparent from the stories gathered that creativity can be hugely important when it comes to people’s mental health and wellbeing. Not only, is it a positive outlet, but people recognise the effect it can have on their wellbeing. One lady who upcycles furniture and homeware, as well as creating arts and crafts, says, “Where I find joy is when I’m creating things.” She goes on to talk about her anxiety and depression, and says, "I know that if I don't have these projects in place, it has a negative effect on my mental health. So, I need those to keep me going. … No matter how big or small, I have something to look forward to, I have a purpose. It's definitely helped maintain my mental health."

This sentiment is echoed throughout the stories. Whether it’s the lady suggesting socially distanced cooking groups, the storyteller discussing letter-writing and adult colouring books, or the mum who says, “me and my son, we have art sessions sometimes,” the pull of creativity as a positive outlet is clear.

The person who talks most extensively on this is, understandably, an artist who paints specifically to boost her mental health. Already a prolific artist, she says that at the start of lockdown she wasn’t painting that much.

Then, one day, it must've been nice weather again, I was in the garden and picked a palette of about 12 colours, well, exactly 12 colours. I know because I've used the same colours for most of lockdown. And I just really enjoyed what I created with that, using loads of colours and using that palette. So, from then on I got a bit more into it and really enjoyed it. … I stuck with the same 12 colours because I wanted to, I wanted it to represent the fact that we still had some freedoms, as in there's 12 colours to choose from, but we were still quite limited.

At the time of her interview, she believes she had created around 200 pieces of art because “[I've] been fortunate enough to be part of an organisation that, when it started, that really helped us to know how much our creativity can help us in times of instability. … There's been times [during the year of the pandemic] that I'll get quite down and I'll just be stuck on the sofa for four days, not really doing much, and it's, like, 'come on, do a bit of artwork, it'll make you feel better.'" This recognition of the benefits of creativity lead her to suggest that it might be beneficial “for people who've never been into art, you know, to have some really basic, kind of, skills given and maybe some material … because that can be really daunting [not knowing what materials to buy for what purposes].” While some people describe themselves as ‘not creative’, creativity isn’t just restricted to painting or music. It can encompass crafts, cooking, sport, performance, digital technology and a whole host of activities, so these suggestions of making creativity accessible are vital when it comes to commissioning interventions.

The full insight report can be downloaded here.

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