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Last Updated: Saturday, 24 July, 2004, 23:30 GMT 00:30 UK
How art can ease a troubled mind
By Melissa Jackson
BBC News Online health staff

One of the competition entries
Art can be an expressive medium
We are often told to "get things off our chest" to unleash our frustrations so that our lives become more bearable.

It helps us to deal with awkward situations, but not everyone feels confident enough to articulate their concerns and can be nervous about letting rip.

None more so than mental health patients, who charities say can feel reluctant to speak out.

With this in mind, a mental health charity is giving people with psychiatric problems the opportunity to express their feelings about being in hospital through the medium of art.

A high profile competition has been launched by Mind to draw attention to the need to improve hospital care and conditions for mental health patients.

The work will be exhibited to MPs at a special showing in London early next year, to Welsh Assembly members in Cardiff and at Mind's annual conference in Harrogate in March 2005.

The first time I went into hospital, it was quite a shock to think that you could be treated so badly
Alison Faulkner, psychiatric patient
Last week, NHS ratings revealed the number of mental health trusts with three stars (the highest rating) increased from 14 to 15, but the number with no stars also increased from three to seven.

Mental health patients' experiences are mixed, but a high proportion have reported incidents where their safety and dignity has been compromised, according to Mind.

Alison Faulkner, who has been a psychiatric patient on seven separate occasions over the past seven years, was often horrified at what she experienced and witnessed during her stays.

Finger jabbing

Her experiences are confined to one hospital in London.

She said: "The first time I went into hospital, it was quite a shock to think that you could be treated so badly.

"Several times I wanted to stand up for patients because I felt quite upset about the way they were being treated.

"I can remember one elderly woman in front of me in the medication queue and the nurse dispensing the medication jabbing her finger at the patient and treating her like a child.

One of the competition entries
An artist's impression of mental health care
"She was virtually putting her finger in this woman's mouth to see if she had taken her medication.

"On another occasion there were two male patients walking up and down the ward holding hands.

"The ward nurse was taunting them with the words 'you poofs'.

"I couldn't believe people in this day and age were talking to patients in this way.

"They needed the friendship of each other, whether they were gay or not.

"I saw another patient being threatened with being put on a secure ward because she was crying."

Unacceptable attitudes

Alison says she was usually too frightened to intervene.

She said: "Quite often you were just too scared to do anything.

"I felt I didn't want to be labelled a trouble-maker.

"I also felt that I needed to behave well on the ward in order to get out and that if I didn't do the right thing while I was in there, I would be sectioned."

She said the unacceptable attitudes and behaviour of some staff were confined to a minority and that most staff were pleasant and helpful, but their actions clouded her opinion of mental health care.

There is a national system failure across England and Wales
Richard Brook, Mind chief executive
She believes some of the worst hospitals need a "radical shake-up".

She would also like to see improved staff training and for psychiatric patients to be involved in that training.

She said: "People working in these hospitals don't ever see you when you're well and it's important for them to know that we aren't always like this.

"The attitude of staff can have a big impact on your recovery."

She is supportive of the competition run by Mind, which carried out a survey exploring alternatives to drug therapy and found that art, music and drama were among the top three therapies rated as helpful by users of mental health services.

Government commitment

Mind's chief executive Richard Brook said: "There are some really good services and some atrocious services.

"But the star ratings suggest that nearly one in ten psychiatric hospitals is failing.

"The competition is part of an ongoing campaign to get a commitment from the government to get a significant improvement in psychiatric wards.

"There is a national system failure across England and Wales.

One of the competition entries
Getting things down in black and white
"It's recognised that 'it's broke' but not enough is being done to fix it.

"Mental health is dropping off the radar."

Statistics show that one in four people will have a mental health problem as some time during their lifetime, so there is good reason to ensure better facilities.

The charity is inviting people to send in photographs of two-dimensional artworks, encapsulating their feelings about the experience of being a psychiatric patient, by 1 November 2004.

More information is available on its website.

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