World Mental Health Day is a day for global mental health education, awareness and advocacy, first celebrated in 1992. It’s an initiative run by the World Federation for Mental Health, a global mental health organisation with members and contacts in more than 150 countries.
This year, on 10 October, World Mental Health Day will focus on living with schizophrenia. Despite being a treatable disorder, more than 50% of people with schizophrenia cannot access adequate treatment, and 90% of people with untreated schizophrenia live in the developing world.
To raise awareness of Schizophrenia, we asked Outside In artist Steve Berridge to tell us about his life living with the symptoms of Schizophrenia and how this has had an impact on his art work.
“I began drawing pictures when I was three years old after watching Dr Who. I started drawing monsters from the programme, and people shooting at each other with guns or using knives. My grandfather would buy me American comics, and I immediately fell in love with the colourful characters and the drama between the super heroes and their adversaries. The artwork in these comics encouraged and informed my drawing, and by the time I was six years old, all I wanted to be was an artist. When I was seven years old I bought ‘the Famous Monsters of Film Land’ magazine with the pocket money my grandfather had given me.
I was fascinated by this American magazine, which reproduced photographs of the monsters of horror films. This encouraged and informed my drawing. I was a solitary child, spending all my time drawing. My only passions being TV, science fiction, American super hero comics, horror comics and horror movies.
When I was 11 years old, I went to a large comprehensive school, where I made no friends and was immediately bullied by older teenagers. After 6 months, I was collapsing with abdominal pain, but the doctors could find nothing physically wrong with me. Eventually, I was sent to a child psychiatrist, after which I was sent to a school for emotionally disturbed children. It was a 1970’s experimental school. There were no lessons, just a seemingly aimless chaos. All I ever did there was draw.
I continued to draw throughout my teenage years, eventually leaving home at 16 and travelling to London with no qualifications and unable to read and write properly. I was semi-homeless and lived in various squats around London. Again, throughout this period I continued to draw and I began to write and draw comic strips. The subject matter of my drawings and comic strips became increasingly unpleasant.
After travelling to Brighton to work in the factories for the rest of my teenage years, I became unemployed again due to the stress of a 60 hour working week. I wanted to go to art college, but was told this wasn’t possible because I had no qualifications, and I was further informed that even if I did get onto a course, I wouldn’t get a grant so would have no money to live on.
Throughout my time in Brighton, I continued to explore art, using colour and painting in gouache. The subject matter was very violent, very angry. My frustration exploded in images of rage, with an almost sexual energy.
After a while, I returned to the West Midlands to live in a small bedsit in an urban village in Birmingham. At this time, I abandoned colour and paint, and began to work in black and white, pen and ink and evolved a strong style, which I felt was very much my own. The subject matter became very dark, fearful and disturbing. At the same time I began reading continental literature; people like Franz Kafka, which in turn helped me redefine my own work.
Again, I tried to enter art college, but was again refused because of my lack of qualifications. But by now, the benefit agency was putting me under continuous pressure to work in conditions I wasn’t able to cope with. So, at the age of 23, I had my first psychotic breakdown. I lost all touch with a sense of reality. I entered a nightmarish mental state, which seemed like hell itself.
In the year after the psychotic breakdown, I continued writing and drawing dark pictures. It was all I could focus on. While I was still drawing, I felt I could hang onto my sanity and some kind of self-identity.
At the age of 27, I enrolled on an art course called ‘A Return to Learning.’ It was a sort of foundation course for people with little education. The course was in London, so at the same time, I began to do pen and ink work for London magazines. But I never actually attended the art course. I was unemployed again, with the benefit agency putting me under pressure. I began to lose any sense of reality. I began to paint in colour again, using gouache paints, but my mind was coming to pieces. I began to believe in madness, in magic, in witchcraft, telepathy, in ghosts, in other dimensions. My mind sped up, and I became manic, obsessed, and delusional. Eventually, my sanity shattered completely and I had a second breakdown.
After being hospitalised, I was diagnosed firstly with ‘manic depressive psychosis’, which over time changed to ‘schizoaffective disorder’, and finally to ‘schizophrenia.’
I was told I could never be a professional illustrator, because any amount of stress would trigger more mania and psychosis. I was told I could never do any form of work, or do anything psychologically stressful because if I did, the mental illness would return again and again.
After staying with my mother for a period of time, I returned to the urban village in Birmingham, and was given a flat on the grounds of mental health. I felt I had lost everything, and in many ways I had – my art career, my art education, any hope and any sense of wellbeing.
But somehow, I began painting again. With no hope of a professional career in art, with no reason, no purpose, no future, I painted what I wanted to. I began to explore the new medium of acrylic paint.
In the following two years, I took my medication, attended regular appointments with psychiatrists, and slowly began to develop my ability to express my feelings, thoughts and state of mind in acrylic paint. The subject matter was an exploration of the confusion or spiritual ideas and feelings I had experienced with mental illness.
Over the next three years, my mental health fluctuated, but somehow I continued to paint. It was the only thing I could focus on. It was the only thing that made any sense. It was the only thing that gave my life any meaning.
I still continue to take medication, and have regular appointments with a psychiatrist, but also, in recent years, a friend who worked in mental health helped me put my artwork on the web so that people can see my pictures on the internet.
I have also been handing out free small glossy prints of my paintings in my local pub. A few years ago, I met someone who ran an art group in mental health, who has an MA in art. She helped me get a solo exhibition at the Custard Factory in 2011. We are now exploring the possibilities of exhibiting my work again in the future.
I’m still a solitary person; I prefer to be on my own with my brushes and my paints. As a psychiatric patient, the only thing that makes any sense in my life is my artwork, because although I lead the life of someone with mental health problems, I also lead the life of an artist.”
– Steve Berridge