Oh My Gosh, You’re Wellcome… Kitten.
If children with significant mental health challenges are supported to collaborate on what their care could be like, what happens?
What if these young people create the boundaries for making art? Share their wellbeing wants and needs? Become professional designers?
From the ground up.
Fifteen young people aged 8 to 13 and the nursing staff from the Mildred Creek Unit, a specialist CAMHS ward at Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH), answered these questions as part a new art project ‘Oh My Gosh, You’re Wellcome… Kitten’. Over six months, from the beginning of December 2018, the young people met regularly in a ward at GOSH that was converted into an art and design studio.
The group explored and imagined what kind of environments, activities and support they would design to make themselves feel more positive, less stressed and to make their journey less painful.
The project was created by myself, ‘the vacuum cleaner’ (James Leadbitter) and I was joined by Caroline Moore, curator at GOSH Arts and Ishbel Mull from muf architecture/art. The outcomes of this process are now presented in a new installation that is part of Wellcome Collection’s new permanent exhibition Being Human, that has just opened.
Each week the group explored different questions: ‘When I look out of the window I want to see?’, ‘How would you design your perfect bedroom?’, ‘Describe your perfect day?’ or ‘What spaces would you have in the perfect hospital?’. In addition, and to help get inspired we went on trips to Kew Gardens, John Lewis, Wellcome Collection and Tate Modern.
Each question was explored in a unique way — like using cardboard, clay, performance, soap, tin foil, the nurses’ bodies, orchids, sheepskin and a generous helping of silliness.
Every week tasks were designed to be accessible, engaging and exciting.
However, the project stretched beyond questions of models of care and design, into a trusting, fun and safe space for the children. (In fact, the only way the young people could be so imaginative was through the co-creation of safe and fun spaces.) Where they could both escape from challenging feelings, or have challenging feelings validated and expressed in ways both young people and adults could relate to. Taking the young people off the ward to their very own art studio helped create a sense of excitement, ownership and agency. Trusting them, listening to them and having an amazing team of nurses who participated in all the activities created a sense of community, fun and belonging. For me this meant being open about my own experience of being in hospital as a young person. The phrase, ‘I know what’s that’s like,’ came up a lot.
By the end of the process hundreds of ideas, suggestions and themes, as well as objects, text, images and provocations, had been created by both the young people and staff, all of them focused on how the young people could feel more positive, be supported on their journey and help them work as a group.
Outcomes of the process.
So what did we learn by taking this time to really listen, support and give these young people agency? What are the outcomes?
There is significant value in relatable experiences — for young people to work with adults who are open about their mental health, particularly working with me, as I have been in adolescent hospital myself. Disabled adults working with disabled young people: with us, for us, about us. However, this wasn’t without challenges too. Maintaining boundaries and wellbeing by leading such a process was complex and could be triggering for me. The question of how disabled adults get better support to work in health and social arts needs more thought.
The range of design ideas and models of care that were created show that hospitals could be more supportive and imaginative. Obviously spending long periods in hospital is going to be challenging for anyone, but particularly for children. Creating places that are inspiring, fun and have a sense of wonder can help the wellbeing of those that need support. Equally this can help challenge the stigma associated with mental health hospitals.
Art can help medical care. Mental health is a complex area of medicine. Is it science, social or cultural? Or as I think about it, all of this and more. What our process has shown is there is value in art. Not art as therapy. Art as a tool for agency, finding your place in the world and changing how things happen. For us this meant creating process led practice, that belongs as much in the art world as it does within medical practice.
Young people can be trusted.
Perhaps the most important thing for me is that people with lived experience know what they are talking about, that includes children. It doesn’t mean that bad habits shouldn’t be challenged and that people are never going to act out when distressed. What I learned is that, given the correct framework and a safe place, these young people were able to speak articulately about what they felt would help them. Even when they were feeling negative about themselves, they felt held enough to be aware of their state of mind. Of course, some people will need stabilising to get to this position, but having agency, creativity and your experiences being validated by others who can relate is going to help, particularly when it comes to psychological pain.
Come to the show at Wellcome Collection and see for yourself… kitten.
A recipient of the Breakthrough Fund, ‘the vacuum cleaner’ (James Leadbitter) describes himself as an art and activism collective of one. Drawing on his own experience, he works with groups including young people, health professionals and vulnerable adults to challenge how mental health is understood, treated and experienced.
This project was co-created by GOSH Arts (funded by the Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity) and included the support of GOSH psychologists and nurses from the Children and Adolescent Mental Health Service.
‘OH MY GOSH, YOU’RE WELLCOME… KITTEN’, created for the Wellcome Collection’s ten-year exhibition Being Human, opens on 5 September 2019.