A Look Back at FACT’s Group Therapy: Mental Distress in a Digital Age

Words by Sufea Mohamad Noor

As FACT looks set to open their next exhibition Build Your Own: Tools for Sharing tomorrow, we take a look back at the success of their previous show Group Therapy.

FACT, thank you for being one of the very few galleries that I do not have to drag my friends to. Once again, you’ve managed to effortlessly host an accessible exhibition that even those without an arts background enjoy and feel welcomed to. It’s exciting when art can be used to facilitate invigorating discussions between people of different backgrounds and interests. With exam season just around the corner, it’s quite useful that a trip to FACT is a valid excuse for revision – or so that’s what these friends of mine who are studying Medicine have told me.

It’s taken me quite a lot of courage to share my thoughts on such a sensitive issue. When something is perceived as a taboo, we normally cannot help but stay away from discussing it. With this in mind, imagine how someone with this condition would feel about sharing this part of themselves. So many people live with mental health conditions but don’t come forward because others cannot relate to it. Group Therapy: Mental Distress in a Digital Age puts you into the environment of those living with mental health so that we can learn to understand these conditions that affect one in every four of us. There’s a lot to learn from this exhibition and thank goodness, it’s not the kind of show that drowns you with information. Instead, it slowly feeds you with an awareness about mental health as you gain the perspectives of those who live with these conditions while you reflect upon yours. It’s an eye opener.

ECT-MachineThe year 1785 marks one of the early documentation of electric currents being used on the brain for medical purposes. It’s no surprise that mental health and technology are not a new combination. The two have co-existed for many years and a testimonial of this is the Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) machine from the 1950s which is on display in this exhibition. Due to depictions of ECT in this nature, I’ve been told that doctors often have to spend a lot of time to correct the negative acceptance of this form of therapy. Nowadays, ECT is still considered as the last option but unlike the rickety and archaic object that you see in the exhibition, this form of therapy is now well regulated and is perfectly safe when carried out by professionals.

Gallery 1 begins with film clips highlighting how external factors in our day to day lives can also affect our mental health. Consumed, directed by Richard Heap is a trailer for a film on consumerism that would surely flick the switch in all of us, making us realise that the activity in which we indulge in, is itself, a dangerous form of mental health condition. Next to this is The Financial Crisis by Superflex, another piece that urges us to be aware of how unexpected events in our calculated lives can knock the equilibrium of our mental health.

Superflex-The-Finanical-Crisis-1-300x199In line with the title of this exhibition, a number of apps have been placed around Gallery 1 to facilitate therapy and diagnosis via digital means. You might say that doing this digitally would not help those who are seeking for help because they need human compassion. But remember that if someone cannot openly speak about their condition, then another avenue is needed to understand it before the individual can speak to a person about it. As my friends and I experienced with UBERMORGEN’s Psychos Sensation, self-diagnosis is a step towards understanding your wellbeing but ultimately, we agreed that we would need to seek professional help so that we can come to a solid conclusion. Mirroring the process of self-diagnosis, the app traps you in a never ending circle as it ask questions but never gives an answer. Your responses are also limited to the choices offered in the form of pictorial icons that lack explanation. If you miraculously achieve to understand what these icons mean, you would still need to go through the process again to key in the several responses that you may have to some of the questions. When will this end? After a few frustrating attempts, you realise that perhaps it’s best to speak to someone now. An app can only offer you what it has been programmed, so peace of mind can only be achieved by talking to someone who can help you to understand your conditions by offering and explaining all of the options available.

On the other hand, it’s quite helpful to have quick and simple mental health exercises available at our fingertips. The In Hand app produced by FACT, Red Ninja and Mersey Care NHS Trust as well as Flowy by Playlab London are two apps that I personally think we should all have on our phones. In Hand allows you to do a quick check up on how you’re feeling by offering feel-good suggestions and directions should you require further help. Flowy acts as a form of distraction to overcome a panic or an anxiety attack by bringing you back to your original breathing state.

playlab-london-flowyA set of photographs and words by Quintan Ana Wikso for Carrie Burried Beneath Catalpa Beans // Mountain Sweep represent visions experienced by those suffering from post-traumatic disorder. It can be argued that we can’t genuinely relate to these images because it is the product of a two-way dialogue between post-traumatic patients and the artist. We, as the gallery visitors can only have a tertiary experience. Even so, the piece is a step forward to understanding what individuals living with this condition go through and the challenges they face. The piece is a visual aid to help us empathise with those living with mental health conditions and reach a better understanding of it so that the stigma can be lifted.

“Isn’t perfection some kind of death?”

Maybe it is but more importantly, we should never suppress an element of ourselves and feel ashamed of it because it is commonly deemed as a flaw. The black dog is a regular metaphor for depression and has been used in Kate Owens and Neeta Mahadar’s piece, Me and the Black Dog. Throughout it, the artists are trying to promote a positive approach to dealing with depression. However, another quote from this piece haunts me, making it hard for me to accept this beautifully animated work.

“A little girl found a black dog and looked after it. But the dog ate her when it got bored. Munch, munch, munch for its lunch.”

It’s healthy to embrace depression but in order to have control over our mental health, surely we should not over feed the attention and energy that depression seeks.

JS58260196Influenced by your heart rate sensed through a clip, The Heart Library by George Khut projects a poetic array of colours and layers in circular shapes on a ceiling when you lie beneath it. Connecting the body and mind, this is a beautiful way to experience being alive. As always, it is the simple and overlooked things in life that are the most beautiful.

Labyrinth Psychotica by Jennifer Kanary Nikolov(a) is a psychosis simulation that offers you the opportunity to journey through a psychotic episode. It’s not exactly the definition of an enjoyable situation if you get claustrophobic easily and have a tendency to over analyse. Forming the basis of this work is a maze of curtains with chilling interventions thrown in between. It was pointed out to me that the infrastructure of this work shares a striking resemblance to how patients who suffer from depression would often describe their view – covered by layers of curtains.

In this controlled environment, I braved myself to participate in this work. As a result, it has triggered thoughts that I now keep in mind purely because the experience was something that I could not have predicted. What I went through in Labyrinth Psychotica made me question what I would do if I were to personally experience a psychotic episode. I was probably just tired, maybe I didn’t pay attention to what the gallery assistant told me and I overthink everything – but as alarming as it feels, it’s safe to say that I now have an awareness of what my thoughts and actions would be in an environment such as this. Having said that though, I don’t regret not paying full attention, because it seems to me that some versions of the description given can rob you from the unexpected and genuine experience. Take in the basic information and just go experience it yourself.

group-therapy_high-res_3A part of me envied my friends who completed Labyrinth Psychotica without any panic. Perhaps it is thanks to their awareness that they could go through such experiences while remaining level-headed, even though they did point out a number of situations when they’ve felt uncomfortable. And so, isn’t this proof that regardless as to whether or not you have a background in psychology, medicine or a similar field, having a general awareness of mental health would benefit us all? It prepares us to understand those who are living with a condition and should it happen, understand a situation in which we might unexpectedly find ourselves in.

Group Therapy: Mental Distress in a Digital Age has now closed, but you can see FACT”s new exhibition Build Your Own: Tools for Sharing from 4 June – 31 August 2015.


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