When words start to fail, art can speak for us
Art therapy uses creative mediums such as drawing, painting, colouring, and sculpture. For some mental illness – such as PTSD – art can help people to process traumatic events in a new away. Art provides an outlet when words fail.
Ros, a mother of one suffering from PTSD and depression, found painting helped her to stay grounded and feel less isolated. She has now had her work featured in an exhibition and hopes that sharing her story will inspire others to use art as a way of recovering from trauma.
Please note, this article contains writing and imagery regarding suicidal ideation.
I gave birth to my first child in April 2020 at the start of the first lockdown. Due to a variety of factors, many relating to the new restrictions being rolled out across services in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, my birthing experience ended up being traumatic. The following weeks were also stressful and lonely, and I have since been diagnosed with PTSD and severe depression with delusional mood.
I have now spent over two years under various mental health services struggling to stabilise enough to engage in meaningful treatment. During this time, I have been asked countless times, “How are you doing?” – a question which I found harder and harder to answer as I have become so tired of hearing myself attempting to find new ways of describing the same bad feelings.
Developing a psychosis alongside PTSD and depression made things even harder as I found my ability to communicate verbally was severely affected. I also started having delusions of persecution relating to most healthcare professionals which made it near impossible to reach out to anyone.
Inspired by another mother
I was inspired to start painting in the run-up to my son’s second birthday. I saw a picture of a painting in an online support group for birth trauma that was posted by another mother who created it in art therapy. As many trauma survivors will tell you, anniversaries are HARD, and there is something relatively unique about birth trauma anniversaries in that they are also your child’s birthday, a day you are expected to celebrate.
I found myself struggling more and more with flashbacks and dissociation in the weeks preceding the big day. I was desperate to find ways to keep myself grounded, but always struggled to get on with things like meditation. I suddenly felt inspired to do something similar, to express all the emotions I was feeling, but felt too ashamed to voice, in a visual way.
The first painting I made took many nights. There was so much I wanted to get across, but it felt like an impossible task to capture in a single image – to this day that work remains unfinished.
Hope by Ros
“Hope was the second piece I was inspired to produce after seeing a inspiration challenge on twitter to depict what the word “Hope” meant to you, and finding myself struggling with the concept of “hope for recovery”.When dealing with mental illness hope is the thing we are told to cling to. But as time passes it can so often feel like it keeps slipping away bit by bit, making it harder and harder to stay afloat.The imagery of a woman clutching a handful of balloons immediately came to me as representative of the current point I was at in my motherhood journey. Planning a second birthday party for my child, despite feeling myself sinking into a deeper depression and questioning whether there was any hope of ever feeling well again.”
Hope was the second piece I was inspired to produce after seeing a inspiration challenge on twitter to depict what the word “Hope” meant to you, and finding myself struggling with the concept of “hope for recovery”.When dealing with mental illness hope is the thing we are told to cling to. But as time passes it can so often feel like it keeps slipping away bit by bit, making it harder and harder to stay afloat.The imagery of a woman clutching a handful of balloons immediately came to me as representative of the current point I was at in my motherhood journey. Planning a second birthday party for my child, despite feeling myself sinking into a deeper depression and questioning whether there was any hope of ever feeling well again.
Distress was the second piece I painted. The inspiration for this piece came from the interactions I’d had recently with my community mental health team. I was struggling, experiencing increasing flashbacks, and feeling desperate as a result.As instructed I was often attempting to contact duty responders for help. However, these calls were proving more unhelpful than healing. I was finding it hard to communicate with them and get the help I needed – they couldn’t understand me due to tears and thought blocking, and even when they could, the support offered was lacking.I felt like I was trapped and drowning in my own emotions. I was reaching out for help, but though I could see it, it felt out of reach.
Threat was the third painting I produced. One of the more stark and challenging images I dreamt up – the naked woman, clutching her baby to her, surrounded by the red hues and spikes of danger, aims to represent how exposed, vulnerable and frightened one can feel following trauma.With birth trauma this often extends to hyper-vigilance over our babies as well. The world has already shown me it cannot be trusted, and I feel I live my life now, in constant fight/flight mode, waiting for the next time.
‘Noise’ is the fourth painting in the series and aims to represent the challenge of juggling the racing thoughts/flashbacks associated with PTSD, whilst still turning up and being: mother, wife, friend, employee, etc. I often find myself dissociated as a way of coping. My body going through the motions of everyday life like a robot, while my consciousness watches from the outside.
Ideation is by far the most challenging, but provoking, images I have created. Suicidal ideation is a symptom of many mental illnesses, birth trauma and postnatal depression included. But the guilt, shame and stigma associated with this, especially as the mother of a young child, makes it that this is something relatively unspoken about.Yet I and at least 500 other women (based on social media engagement) are struggling with birth trauma have experienced this.When the rest of the noise becomes unbearable, ideation kicks in and becomes all consuming. At this point we look to our lives for reasons to stay and even just one small thing is enough sometimes. My son keeps me alive – he is my reason to keep trying.
Promoting understanding and creating connections
Painting has been such a helpful outlet for me. It is something I am able to do mindfully and maintain focus on even during the more difficult days. The images I produce have helped the people around me understand where I am at mentally – I’ve been able to use them almost like flashcards at times. Through sharing them online I have also found them to be a way of connecting with other people who feel similarly – this has helped both me and them feel less isolated.
I recently had three of my pieces exhibited as part of Doncaster Art Fair’s exhibition entitles Art as a response to mental health, and I set up an Etsy shop to sell prints of my works with 50% of profits donated to various mental health charities and the rest being reinvested back into supplies. I hope to apply for the SANE creative awards scheme when it next opens and keep searching for more opportunities to share my art with people and help beat the isolation that mental illness brings to many.
Painting helped me through my most recent crisis and gave me purpose and headspace at a time when I felt lost and overwhelmed. I would highly recommend it to others who are struggling similarly.
Thanks to Ros for sharing her story. You can find her online at:
SANE’s Creative Award Scheme provides an opportunity for those affected by mental illness, including families and carers, to take a step towards realising their creative potential. A grant from the scheme can enable those who may not otherwise be able to afford materials, courses or other costs to help fulfil their creative potential.
We are now open for new applications for the fourth round of the scheme. Applications should be received by Monday 7 November 2022.
Please go to sane.org.uk/creativeawards for more information and how to apply.