Frontlines – The role of the arts

Good poetry, music and art add a beneficial spiritual dimension to people’s lives, a role once taken by religion, writes Nigel Leaney

I must have been about 13 when I visited into our local town hall to watch the up and coming progressive rock band Barclay James Harvest. That first note of the first song, played on a mellotron that built up into a world-shattering crescendo, rushed through my mind and body, shifting me to a space hitherto unknown to me. Suddenly I was there on a mountaintop flooded with inchoate feelings and images previously unleashed. And then later I realised it wasn’t just the celebrated, pampered Proust chomping down on the unlikely medium of a cake who could enjoy such a transcendental experience.

That day began a lifetime casual exploration of the power of art: be it music, paintings. sculpture, literature or philosophy to transport the individual to a higher, if ephemeral, level of consciousness. All around us we see people plugged into their MP3 players – the so-called iPod generation – reaching out to focus on something more meaningful than their dreary urban commute or robotic trudge through Tesco.

Our mental health depends on connecting with something bigger than our prosaic daily existence. With the demise of organised religion, art is now centre stage to give people’s lives spiritual meaning as well as being a potent source to heal the psyche. William Burroughs said he wrote himself out of his heroin addiction by producing The Naked Lunch.

In my own service I hold a poetry group. The emphasis is on fun – I stay clear of labelling it as “therapy” with all the baggage that word may carry.

The arts can help define the inexplicable in terms of human experience. A sharing of art can bond people in friendship. Metaphor in poetry can be the mind’s interpretation of a world that feels alien, and can cut much deeper than ordinary expression. Poetry eases the aloneness that many people feel with a mental health problem and so helps normalise the

Poetry is not just for elite academics. It is an age old tradition, our earliest form of communication, dating back to before Homer for the communication of the common man, passed down through the ages before the advent of writing. It is time to reclaim this forgotten treasure trove.

Nigel Leaney manages a mental health residential service

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