How can art and design bring people together to improve our mental health?

Becky Warnock and Abbas Zahedi don’t make “therapeutic art” as such, but through an acknowledgement of the multiple benefits of viewing and making art, they have been able to respond to the needs of individuals and communities throughout the pandemic. Around three years ago when Becky ran a one-off session with Creative People and Places Hounslow – supporting a group working around poetry to make imagery to accompany their writing – conversations emerged around the link between mental health and language: “how it so often fails to describe the battles that people have, how many barriers to accessing support it can create, and the possibilities of imagery to help explore this.” As a result, Becky got in touch with the Heston & Cranford Local Advisory Group who were co-running the session, to discuss devising a longer-term project focusing on mental health and photography.
BALM is an instantly recognisable project, with a colourful visual identity developed with illustrator Olivia Twist. Cynthia tells me: “We wanted to create visuals with vibrant colours and high contrasts for more accessibility, show different types of characters in confident postures, feeling at peace or just having fun.” Unified by these welcoming and intimate portraits, Cynthia and Olivia have taken mental health resources that are traditionally uniform in their blandness and made them refreshingly appealing. “It was essential to create vivid and playful imageries to visually communicate the joy and plurality of Black communities.” The results are conversation starter cards which operate similarly to a card game, asking thought-provoking questions around community, individual experience and identity, and a journal filled with quotes from activists and cultural figures while encouraging the participant to track their emotions. In so doing, Cynthia prioritises a person-centred and participatory approach to design with the potential to impact meaningful social change. “To me, designers are first and foremost dreamers who try to give life to one or many ideas they have in mind. To make a change in society, you cannot dream alone. You have to connect and relate with your environment – human, non-human, the planet and above – to jointly compose with a new reality.”