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Firstly, would you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about you and what you do?
I’m Hayley Wanless and I’m a second year Fine Art student. I’m currently trying to set up a new society that is focused on setting up exhibitions, as this is currently only available for 3rd year Fine Art students. My interests are mainly in art, which sounds a bit sad – that’s all I really enjoy.
You mentioned your plan to try and start a society for people who want to hold exhibitions?
We’ve just divided the society into roles; we have a pub team, an installation team, a curating team, and an opening night team. We want to help students promote their work; teach them how to self-promote and be commercially aware. People think that as an art society we’re just going to be drawing and stuff together but it’s not like that – it’s kind of like a business. Anyone is welcome to get involved, although we’ve only spoken to first and second year Fine Art students at the moment because we’re just trying to find our feet and work out what we have to do to open it up to everyone else.
We’re inspired by modern British artists like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, who set up an exhibition together and then obviously got really famous from it. We aren’t looking for crazy amounts of fame, we just want to actively be trying to promote our work and to do that you sort of have to step up from everybody else in the art sector.
Tell me a bit about your artwork.
At the start of 2nd term last year, I looked at mental illness and how that relates to artists. You hear a lot about artists having mental illness and it interests me a lot because I’ve dealt with depression and anxiety myself. That’s how I started going about it, really. I began by asking people on Facebook, Twitter and WordPress about their experiences and how they’d describe them metaphorically. It just went down different routes from there. I mainly asked people on my course and my friends, and having people around me that feel the same way but obviously hid it very well helped me to not just feel like I was the odd one out. It made me feel a lot less “crazy”. My friends and my sister are a big part of my work. My motivation was just to help people; I wanted people to have something to relate to.
I have currently looked mostly at depression, anxiety, and bipolar purely because those are the responses I got from people, but over this year I’m planning to expand to just general illness. I’ve had responses from people with indeterminate colitis, diabetes, and narcolepsy, as well as the mental illnesses that I’ve been looking at before.
Have there been any things that have particularly shocked you?
I was shocked by how many people felt the same. I know that sounds strange but I had three separate people all say they felt like they were drowning. That’s a lot of people to use the same metaphor. I don’t know, I think people feel like they’re being labelled and stigmatised; they don’t want to be under the “crazy” banner. If you had diabetes or something, I don’t think the label would have as much stigma or negative impact.
Your work has been inspired by your own experiences and those of people around you; was it difficult to initiate dialogues with people about mental illness?
I put a post up telling people what I was doing and said that if they wanted to participate that was completely up to them, just message me or email me or whatever. People did, which is really good and helpful because it’s a really hard thing to do. It was difficult, but I want people to know that they can talk to me about things.
It was hard to bring up; it was hard to even tell my parents that I was doing a project like this, because they were just like, “What are you doing that for? That’s a bit weird.”
What would you say to anyone thinking about having a conversation with their friends and family about mental illness?
This is the hardest question. I’d say to just talk – even if it’s a tiny bit. If we never talk about it, we’ll never get to the bottom of things. If you wanted to start a conversation like that, I’d say the best thing is to just say “I’ve not been feeling too great lately”, because people are usually quite responsive to that. Whether it’s your mum or your best friend or whoever, they’ll just be like “Oh why, what’s up?” and then you can go from there. I write down how I’m feeling all the time and even that’s a lot more helpful that just keeping it in your head whirring around.
One of the aspects of stigma surrounding mental health is that it’s the person’s fault or a personality flaw (e.g. just laziness). How do you think that should be dealt with?
Everyone is different; I don’t think anyone has the same reason for having mental illness. Some people I spoke to were abused when they were younger, some suffered a loss that triggered things for them, and for me it’s just a chemical imbalance. I don’t think there’s anything I can do about that.
I think the only ways it’s going to be dealt with is by talking about it. There’s a charity called Time To Change which I think is really positive, but obviously there is always the absolute terror of starting a conversation like that. The only way the stigma will be reduced is if people open up and talk about it. The things people tell me when I’m doing my research are the things they should be telling their friends and family so they can get help and support.
A lot of illnesses are invisible & it’s really difficult for people to understand that you have an illness if they can’t see it. If you can’t go to dance lessons or somewhere because you’re too tired because of your illness, people find it hard to understand and often just interpret it as laziness or giving up. People like to think they understand these illnesses, but I don’t think you really can until you’ve experienced it for yourself. I think it’s important to try and listen to people’s experiences more.
It was hard for my mum to understand when I first spoke to her about it. I came home one day from the doctors and was like “I’ve got this prescription, don’t freak out” and explained what it was for, and she just flipped. She couldn’t see it, so she refused to believe it was real and refused to let me take medication for something she couldn’t physically see. That was hard to deal with, knowing that my mum wasn’t supporting me.
The project is something you started in your first year; is it particularly informed by your experiences at university?
I don’t know really, it was just something I was really passionate about. It has developed over the course of university; as my experiences got worse I realised that I was passionate about getting better, but also that I wanted to help people around me and the friends that I’d made here.
How do you feel like the university supports people with mental illness on campus?
I personally accessed the counselling service throughout last year. It was okay – one woman said to me “If you want to die, why don’t you leave your windows open at night so the spiders can crawl in a poison you?” which was a bit weird. Generally she was very helpful and the fact that the university has a service at all is amazing – not many do. I’ve recommended it to my friends & would say the same to anybody. Making an appointment is really daunting, but it’s so worth it.
How have your experiences impacted your studying, and what advice would you give to someone who is having issues with their course as a result of illness?
I personally know of people who suffer with depression and anxiety who just try to take every day as it comes. If you don’t feel like you can do your coursework on a given day, you probably can’t and there’s no point spiralling over something you can’t control. You just have to suck it up, have a good sleep and try again the next day.
I know a lot of people that have just dropped out and for me, I’m proud that I haven’t because I was so close to dropping out this time last year. It’s just about trying to get through first term. And then second term. And then third term. I did it and got a first and made it back this year. It’s hard because you can’t push yourself too hard, but I think it’s important to try not to just give up.
The university provides loads of help; I could go and tell my department that I needed extra time because I’m feeling low and can’t do it right now and that would be fine. As long as you keep people informed and make sure they know what you’re dealing with and that it might stop you from doing some things, I think most departments are really accommodating. You need to just tell them.
How did you get through your lowest point, when you felt like you might drop out?
My lowest point wasn’t great – I took an overdose and I wouldn’t advise that to anybody. My friends really got me through that. I just stayed with them and stayed busy and then tried to stay busy when I went home. I went to the doctors again and got a new councillor for while I was at home, which was easier than I thought it would be. The advice I’d give is to try and stay busy; it’s really easy to get into the pattern of disassociating yourself so try really hard to make sure you’re seeing people.
I wish I’d talked to people more. I wouldn’t have been in that situation if I had talked to someone, but I think I just got a bit too overwhelmed and that’s why overdosed.
When I came to Lancaster, I had no friends. I didn’t go out in Freshers and I completely removed myself from everything, which was the worst idea in the world. Obviously then my flatmates thought I hated them, thought I was rude, and I felt bad about it. Even if you don’t want to go out, just go and have dinner with people and try and be in communal space, even if it’s just for an hour a day. We got along great in the end, so it’s definitely possible to recover from a bad start – people are really understanding.
What would you say to anyone who is concerned about someone close to them and wants to start a dialogue?
I would have wanted my flatmates to come and talk to me rather than it being the other way around. I think people can often tell when there’s something wrong but just feel like it’s too awkward to bring up, but all it takes is knocking on their door and being like “is here anything wrong? Do you want to talk about it?” Even if you aren’t that close it creates some sort of bond and makes you feel like you could trust yourself more.
My friends come in and just let me know when I’m not seeing them as much or staying in my room a bit more than I should be and just ask how they can help me, what they can do. It doesn’t take much, but just knowing that someone notices when you aren’t there is nice.
If you want to get involved with Hayley’s project, you can find her and her artwork at hayleywanless29.wordpress.com or get in touch over Facebook.