I recently had a chance to travel to Amsterdam and took the opportunity to visit the Van Gogh Museum to learn more about one of my favourite artists.

It is well known that Vincent Van Gogh (March 30, 1853 - July 29, 1890) suffered most of his adult life with a myriad of physical and mental health conditions such as insomnia, epilepsy, depression, bi-polar disorder, anxiety and Ménière’s disease (a disorder of the inner ear that is characterised by episodes of vertigo, tinnitus and hearing loss).

He sought help with these condition from local doctors in Arles, France, where he was living at the time, and in May of 1889 admitted himself to the Saint-Paul de Mausole asylum in Saint-Rémy de Provence, France. It was during his year-long stay at this facility that Van Gogh used creativity and his artistic abilities not only as therapy but as an attempt to manage his health conditions and improve his overall wellbeing. He used the asylum grounds and gardens to create what some consider to be his best paintings such as: Irises, The Garden of St Paul’s Hospital and Cypresses and two Women.

Watford Observer:

Irises by Vincent Van Gogh, 1890. Picture: Van Gogh Museum

In the early 1970s the staff of the Leavesden Hospital created many therapeutic arts related opportunities such as painting, drawing, crafts, music and drama, for residents to use as part of their own therapies with much success.

The Occupational Therapy Department, headed by Monica Diplock from 1962 to 1984, saw residents creating their own practical items such as teddy bears, foot stools, brass candlestick holders’ and various other items which they could then offer for sale at the annual fairs. Something that the residents and staff all looked forward to.

Watford Observer:

Various items made by residents of the Leavesden Hospital, 1970. Picture: Leavesden Hospital History Association

On the south side of College Road, the Abbots Langley hospital staff involved their residents, many of whom had dementia, in creating homemade ornaments and figurines for the holidays.

The idea that all forms of creativity (the arts) play a valuable and vital role in helping people maintain their mental wellbeing came into its own in the late 1990s with a programme titled Arts on Prescription, which recognised that engagement in the arts can alleviate anxiety, depression, stress and loneliness and that the arts can be an effective mental medication for their treatment and management.

Watford Observer:

Artistmeet display at Watersmeet Theatre. Picture: Three Rivers District Council

Elaine Johnson, community arts development officer, co-ordinates the Arts on Prescription, Artistsmeet and the Picture This - Photography Walks schemes for Three Rivers District Council and agrees with the benefits of these programmes.

She said: “These unique projects are targeted towards people who want to try an alternative way of improving their mental health, through social prescribing and creativity. Participants take part in mindful art-based sessions which build confidence, encourage relaxation and empower them to make further positive changes in their lives. Our creative activities are always popular with people of all ages and families too.

“There is so much data-based evidence out there to show how taking part in a cultural activity can boost wellbeing and the pandemic has brought this to our attention with so many more people turning to the creative arts for sanctuary”.

Watford Observer:

Christmas ornaments painted by residents of the Abbots Langley Hospital, 1985. Picture: Eve Durtnell

Recognising, promoting and supporting the use of the arts for wellbeing can be found not only in our local communities, but nationally as well. Dean Russell, MP for Watford, is not only a noted artist himself, but is chair of the Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art and serves on the Health and Social Care Committee. Dean knows the importance of taking time away from the daily grind of life and the benefit to the bottom line of everyone’s wellbeing.

He said: “I think it is very important that everybody takes time for themselves away from any screens, and painting can serve as a welcome distraction. When I am working on a piece of art, it allows me to forget a lot of what is happening in the background, even if just for a short period of time.

“I am also committed to supporting the Government’s Music and the Arts in Healthcare programme. Government data on arts participation rates in England estimates that the total annual savings to the NHS due to reductions in GP visits is more than £168 million.

You don’t have to paint like Vincent Van Gogh, write like A. J. Park or sing like Adele to use your own creative talents, something we all have, to take a few steps back from the day-to-day struggles of just getting by during these trying times. What ever you can do to make some “me time” will help you get through it all.