“We are not transparent to ourselves. We have intuitions, suspicions, hunches, vague musings, and strangely mixed emotions, all of which resist simple definition,” write Alain de Botton and John Armstrong in Art as Therapy, a book that was published toward the end of 2013 and that echos some of the ideas that American author and essayist, Siri Hustvedt, had already been toiling with for a number of years.
A native of Minnesota, Siri Hustvedt taught creative writing to inpatients at the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic in New York from 2006 to 2010 with the firm believe that writing could bring about healing.
“I discovered that writing truly does have a therapeutic value for psychiatric patients. I saw it in my classes, and I have been thinking through why it has the benefits it does. I believe these benefits are achieved by all forms of artistic practice,” she says.
But why would a novelist with a PhD in English have an interest in psychiatry and what it means to be a patient with mental illnesses, what he or she has to go through?
For almost as long as she can remember she's had to cope with migraines, with their unpredictable and blinding pain, which in turn made her become interested in anatomy and physiology from an early age, and in 2006 she suffered a seizure from the neck-down – she recorded her experiences in The Shaking Woman or the Story of My Nerves. And it's been her unabating curiosity, her desire to make the world question the boundary between normal and abnormal, that made her become a jury member for the Dr. Guislain Award, which is presented every year to people or organizations who make an effort to break the chains of stigma linked to mental illnesses. The Award was created in 2012 and is an initiative steered by the Dr. Guislain Museum in Gent, and Janssen Research and Development. The jury receives nominations from December until April, with the winner announced in October.
“The award has not only been given to art therapy causes,” Mrs. Hustvedt says. “It has also been given to individuals or groups that foster the diminishment of stigma still attached to mental illness everywhere, although in some cultures it is far worse than in others. It is crucial to understand that suffering from a mental illness does not make people stupid or ignorant. There are other causes for those afflictions. In fact, countless people with psychiatric diagnoses are creative and original. No doubt, this truth comes from both the physiological realities of their illness and from their experience as marginal in a given culture.”
But life can be complex, some of its aspects often too difficult to grasp. Clear and simple rules are marred with exceptions. Contradictions abound.
She explains to me that in her classes there were always patients who were relieved to be in the hospital. There were others who couldn't wait to get out.
Why do humans have trouble dealing with ambiguity, I ask her.
“What a deep question,” she exclaims. “I think ambiguity is uncomfortable. It is like an itch in our thought processes and the continual scratching of that itch is annoying. We want it to end. We want certainty because it brings calm. Embracing ambiguity is important because it means being open to new thoughts, and it keeps us humble in the face of the astonishing complexity of human experience.”
Finally I ask her about suicide, a topic she's written about. Can an initiative like the Dr. Guislain Award help reduce the number of suicides?
“Suicide is very difficult to parse. My intense reading on the subject left me in awe of the complexities involved. To be blunt: despair and suicide are linked, but despair like happiness is not a permanent condition. For people with mental illness who are also suicidal, the right word at the right time or some form of dialogue or intervention can and has prevented a person from taking her or his own life. So, yes, initiatives matter.”